By: Maggie McIntyre
Riverlink is an Asheville-based organization that promotes the environmental and economic vitality of the French Broad River and is an organizational member of EENC. Their environmental education initiatives include summer day camps, an annual art and poetry contest that commemorates young people’s appreciation for the river, and their RiverRATS program that offers free lessons for students both in the classroom and outdoors at various field sites.
Riverlink was founded in the mid-1980s as an effort to have visitors stay longer in Asheville. The city wanted the river area to attract tourists and was incredibly successful in doing so. Now, Asheville hosts an estimated 10 million visitors per year, and the river and its surrounding parks remain an important part of Asheville.
The organization not only focuses on environmental education, but also conservation and watershed resources to keep the river and watershed healthy and safe. All three of these missions relate to each other and it is very effective as a three-pronged approach.
“It’s a challenge to balance all three, especially with a small staff, but we have some really excellent people that are wonderful at what they do that make it possible,” said Justin Young, Riverlink’s Education and Outreach Manager.
Young has worked with Riverlink for 7 years to develop different education programs to help create the next generation of environmental stewards. He originally got into environmental education after working with a professor in college to conduct education-based events. He found himself at Riverlink as an Americorps volunteer a few years later before becoming a full-time employee of the organization.
“Education is kind of where it all begins,” he said. “We are hopefully allowing them to begin this journey down the path of becoming a full-time environmental steward, whether that’s in their personal life, or moving into a professional realm.”
Young said that although all of their programming is important and fulfilling, their RiverRATS program is the one he is most proud of. RiverRATS works with 3,000 students annually, primarily children of color and children in low-income communities to encourage them to engage with the outdoors and learn more about the surrounding watershed. This program is structured into lessons that range from 45 minutes to 2 hours and can be conducted both in classrooms or at field sites.
Each lesson has a focus to get kids thinking like stream ecologists and river stewards. For example, they have a lesson on macroinvertebrates that gets kids searching in the water for critters and learning about their importance in river ecosystems. Young said that many of the kids who are a little wary at first about getting in the water and picking up these macroinvertebrates are the same kids who don’t want to get out of the water come the end of the lesson.
Their summer camps are another way that Riverlink accomplishes the environmental education work they have set out to do. With these camps, kids are able to explore the French Broad and surrounding watershed through rafting, paddling, tubing, hiking, etc. Young said that he sees kids return year after year to their camps saying it was an amazing experience for them.
Young also said that the poetry and art contest they hold annually is a great way to showcase local appreciation for the river. Students are able to submit poetry, prose, 2D and 3D art, or video compositions to reflect on the French Broad River watershed.
Riverlink is always looking to expand and improve the work that they do within the French Broad River watershed. Young said that they are hoping to expand their RiverRATS program to have an afterschool component for students which will involve adjusting their curriculum to a more appreciational and experimental approach.
Young said that it is important for Riverlink to encourage a more diverse community within their field, which they have initiated by focusing RiverRATS on reaching low-income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color) communities. He said that although this program is accomplishing so much, it is important for environmental educators to build resources for these communities.
“Preserving these spaces is a collaborative effort. We need everyone to feel connected, to feel accepted within these spaces,” Young said. “ Otherwise, we are going to have a really hard time ensuring that they stay healthy for future generations.”
Riverlink is also hoping to become a national model of how local groups can work to conserve, protect, and connect their community with their local water resources. Young said they are hoping to refine everything they do to make it transferable to other areas.
“This three-pronged approach that we’re using has a lot of potential to be useful in other communities,” he said.
The work that Young does with kids has an incredible impact not only on each individual student, but also on the French Broad River watershed, and North Carolina as a whole. Young said that as kids keep coming back to camps, or keep participating in the RiverRATS programs, he is able to see firsthand that they are learning and growing which leads them one step closer to becoming lifelong environmental stewards.
Photo Credits: Riverlink
Maggie McIntyre is a first-year environmental studies student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was born and raised in Greensboro, NC with a passion for learning and being in the great outdoors.