You’d be hard-pressed to find nonprofits with an origin story more organic and homespun than NatureTrack. The organization was founded 11 years ago by Sue Eisaguirre, who, after raising her own kids with lots of outdoor time, returned to work heading up the docent and K-12 outreach programs for the UCSB Sedgwick Reserve.
“It was great, but I really wanted to reach more students, because being outside and experiencing nature is incredibly important for kids and for the environment,” she said. “And this is right when school districts were cutting budgets, and field trips – especially to nature – were pretty slim. I figured the best way was to have the trips during the traditional school day and work with teachers to tie it into their curriculum.”
It was Eisaguirre’s husband who suggested she take matters into her own hands and start her own program, kickstarting the idea for NatureTrack. “He bought me a book on how to form a 501(c)3 and away I went,” she recalled with a small laugh. “That was back in February 2011, and by November we were out on the trails with the kids.”
In the decade since those humble beginnings, NatureTrack has grown considerably and has taken more than 25,000 school-age students on outdoor field trips, reaching its capacity of 5,000 experiences a year just before the pandemic brought things, temporarily, to a halt. The field trips are provided at no cost to the participants or the school districts, with the organization covering everything including transportation, allowing kids to not just read about nature, or see a slide show at school, but actually immerse themselves in local parks, preserves, and beaches, engaging their curiosity and instilling a perhaps new appreciation and awe of the wonders of the natural world.
“I did some presentations at schools and for principals in the beginning, but after that it just grew by word of mouth among teachers who always recommend us after their class goes on a trip,” Eisaguirre said. “When we opened up reservations in August of 2019, we were almost full within 72 hours for the trips for that year. It was going like gangbusters, but then COVID hit.”
With the pandemic closures, NatureTrack, like all of us, veered to virtual programs, doing its best to still bring nature to the kids. The nonprofit also reopened as soon as protocols allowed and now expects to serve more than 3,500 students before the end of the academic year in June.
Pivoting is nothing new to NatureTrack though. Despite its youth, the organization has endeavored creative ways of expanding its reach and meeting its mission to foster a lifelong fascination with nature. First came the NatureTrack Film Festival, launched five years ago to both bring important documentaries on the environment and nature to the charming Santa Ynez Valley town of Los Olivos, and serve as the nonprofit’s main annual fundraiser.
“I didn’t want to do just another gala dinner and auction,” Eisaguirre explained. “I’d been to the Telluride Film Festival where people walk between the venues and spend a lot of time outside, and I thought a festival dedicated to nature could really expand the awareness of our program.”
The 2020 fest was going to be a big boon to both NatureTrack’s mission and its coffers, with more than 30 filmmakers set to attend in person, plus a number of events, as well as screenings. But COVID closed things down just days before the opening, and after last year’s mostly virtual fest, the event has been put on hold for 2022 in favor of focusing on other efforts.
That would include expanding New Tracks, the organization’s program to increase access to nature for wheelchair users. Using Freedom Trax, a device that transforms a manual wheelchair into a battery-powered, all-terrain vehicle capable of traversing sand and trails, the program provides those with physical disabilities access to beaches and trails, many for the first time.
“Technology has caught up to make it easier for people with disabilities to enjoy nature,” explained Eisaguirre, who arranged for NatureTrack to secure funding to acquire and maintain 10 of the devices. “It’s so heartwarming to be able to get everybody out into nature now.”
The nonprofit currently arranges monthly excursions to local beaches and trails featuring Freedom Trax and is in the process of setting up trips specifically for residents of senior living facilities. They even co-produced a short documentary called The Accessible Outdoors that is making the rounds on the film festival circuit.
What’s astonishing is that NatureTrack has done all this with a shockingly streamlined staff, consisting of Eisaguirre and just one other full-time employee, who only joined five years ago. That’s possible because of the nonprofit’s cadre of volunteers, some 100 strong, who, after a free training program, lead the school field trips that have a ratio of five students to each volunteer, and perform other services.
“I really can’t say enough about our volunteers, and they range from college students to seniors in their nineties, who are out on the trails with us,” she said. “They really step up and help out.”
Eisaguirre said that NatureTrack could certainly use more helpers as the programs continue to expand post-pandemic, and of course donations of any kind are not only welcome but very much in need given the current astronomical rise in the price of gasoline.
“Transportation costs have gone up significantly, so that’s one of the best ways to help,” she said. “With just the two of us, we don’t need much in terms of overhead.”
Meaning nearly all of every dollar donated goes toward helping more schoolkids do an enjoyable, curiosity-instilling deep dive into nature, a program Eisaguirre called a win-win-win.
“The students love it because they’re engaging all of their senses, it ties in with what the teachers are doing in the classrooms, and it’s a win for the natural world, because it’s just human nature to protect something when you understand it and appreciate it. And that can really make a difference in our world.”
Sue Eisaguirre, Executive Director