Mafanta Swaray, 19, and Edgar Rivera, 18, both Watershed Institute summer fellows funded by the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River (AWE), wanted to replicate the wonders of nature for residents of their hometown of Trenton.
The Watershed is one of the 23 environmental education centers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware that comprise AWE. The centers share a mission to collectively increase and enhance appreciation, knowledge, and stewardship of the Delaware River watershed.
For 12 weeks, Mafanta and Edgar were ambassadors who reached new and underrepresented audiences, advocated for less human impact on our environment and shared information on how to help restore and protect local watersheds.
They were introduced to AWE by their science and school mentors at Trenton Central High School and were eager to work at the Watershed.
“I knew I would be exploring science, but I didn’t know it was going to be so much fun,” Mafanta said. “It isn’t a cookie-cutter experience – we were knee-deep in the water at the floating wetlands one day or catching frogs in the butterfly house the next. Each day was different.”
Edgar and Mafanta were motivated to apply for the AWE fellowship because they wanted to deepen their connection with nature beyond Trenton city’s small parks and occasional trips to Mercer County’s parks.
“I adore nature and it is my happy place, but I didn’t have the opportunity to explore it much when I was growing up,” Edgar said. “I wanted to dive headfirst and I like natural sciences, so I wanted to be able to explore more first hand instead of online.”
Both fellows guided the public tours of the Kate Gorrie Butterfly House on Thursdays during the summer. Often, they would give visitors nets to catch butterflies to restock the species on display, and removed predators such as praying mantis and frogs that snuck into the enclosure. They helped Watershed staff rebuild a willow tunnel, donned hip waders to go into Rosedale Lake to maintain the floating wetlands, and even volunteered at the Butterfly Festival.
Mafanta is a rising sophomore majoring in nursing studies and minoring in biology at Stockton University, and Edgar is a rising freshman interested in studying biology at Middlebury College. They wanted their capstone AWE project to combine science and education.
“We wanted to build a rain garden for the environment, but we also wanted to connect people with the environment. Let’s change our original project and instead build rain gardens in Trenton,” Mafanta said. “We grew up there and we knew people don’t get a chance to see the environment, so let’s replicate it.”
They gathered about 20 volunteers from the greater Trenton area and planted six rain barrels with native plants to attract butterflies and other pollinators. They also wanted to involve the community, reaching out to nonprofit organizations such as Isles Inc. and the Boys & Girls Club of Trenton. During the daylong event, Mafanta said they ordered lunch for everyone from Trenton Pizza to involve the local community further.
“This outreach was definitely important and it is such a new thing that we’re bringing to the city of Trenton,” Edgar said. “We wanted to bring a piece of nature to Trenton that is really lacking.”
During their summer-long experience, there were a few surprises. Mafanta, who was a counselor in training at the Watershed Nature Camp in 2017, said every day was different, exciting, and fresh.
Added Edgar, “pretty much everything was unexpected. It was chaos, but the best kind of chaos. There was all this crazy stuff going on and you’re just trying the keep up. I just loved it and it was a new thing each time. Nobody needs to know they have to catch a frog until they see it – it is part of the journey.”
Steve Tuorto, Director of Science & Stewardship at the Watershed, said, “these two fellows brought an amazing amount of enthusiasm and energy to their summer experience with us here. We benefited immensely from their creativity.”