BY KATE KOWALSKI — Magruder Park is generally a good place to hear sounds of children happily playing, especially on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
But on one recent Sunday, a group of nine excited 4-to-6-year-olds resisted the lure of the playground and, instead, spent their park time picking up trash. Led by local parents Marci LeFevre and Katie Ablard, the children first learned about how litter affects land and water habitats, and then set out to make a difference. Armed with handy trash-grabbers on loan from the city, the group eagerly hunted out as much trash as they could find.
These little cleaning elves are members of the Hyattsville chapter of Roots & Shoots, and the October 16 park cleanup is just one of the many activities the group has done together.
Roots & Shoots, the youth program created by the Jane Goodall Institute, has members in over 120 countries. Both environmental and humanitarian in focus, the program provides a model that can be adapted to any age group and any community.
Each chapter chooses different ways to educate children on the needs of the community – both local and global – and comes up with their own ways of addressing them. What all chapters have in common is active participation by parents to plan and lead the group activities.
For the local chapter, that parent involvement started with Maureen Vosmek, who was looking for a group for her preschool son, Mason, to join earlier this year. She had heard about Roots & Shoots, so a little more research inspired her to create a group for him and other local children.
Lots of parents were interested, and so were lots of kids: An initial information session at Vosmek’s house last spring produced a roster of 20 children, putting the group at capacity and closing it to new members. (While this is the only branch in Hyattsville proper, a search at www. rootsandshoots.org reveals 13 nearby chapters for students in preschool through college, along with information about starting new chapters.)
All the parents pitched in to help start the group and keep the momentum going, planning activities for every other weekend. Most meetings aren’t complete without an energetic rendition of the official theme song – Raffi’s “Roots and Shoots Everywhere” – led by local songstress (and mom) Audrey Engdahl.
“While I will take credit for proposing the initial idea of a Roots & Shoots group,” said Vosmek, “it has really been a collaborative effort among all the families. Each family has taken a turn organizing an activity, field trip or service project and each one has been an amazing experience. It truly is an incredible community of kids and parents!”
Wearing matching T-shirts and tie-dyed bandannas (decorated at their first meeting), the Hyattsville Roots & Shoots members have been seen in all sorts of interesting places. They have learned about fossils at the Laurel Dinosaur Park, butterflies at Wheaton’s Brookside Gardens, and trees at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. The group has a plot at the Hyattsville Community Garden, and some of the flowers grown there were brought by the children to a local nursing home to be used as table decorations.
In the near future, the children will learn how to make birdhouses and how to turn items bound for the recycle bin into beautiful holiday ornaments. Long term, there are hopes that the scope of the group will grow as the children do.
“I hope that as the kids get older, they can take on a leadership role in determining what activities they want to do and what ideas they want to focus on.” said Vosmek. “I love the service-oriented aspect of the group, and I hope that the kids continue to gain an understanding of good stewardship and a global perspective.”
Magruder Park today, and tomorrow … who knows? There is a whole world out there, and these children are ready to make their mark.
Kate Kowalski, who has lived in Hyattsville for two years, has a daughter in the local chapter of Roots & Shoots.