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Like her students, Riverkeepers' new environmental educator is learning

Charissa Jones brings experience, enthusiasm to her job.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Charissa Jones, who was recently hired as environmental educator for Tualatin Riverkeepers, stands by the Tualatin River near the Riverkeepers' headquarters in Tualatin.Charissa Jones taught third grade for a year at Pinar Elementary School in Orlando, Fla., where a large portion of the student body comes from low-income households. She’s worked on conservation, ecology studies and other environmental efforts in both her native Suriname and her adoptive United States.

But since moving to Oregon to take a job this February with Tualatin Riverkeepers, a Tualatin-based nonprofit organization that promotes river and stream health in the Tualatin Valley, Jones has been learning a lot.

Jones was 4 years old when she and her family moved from Paramaribo — the capital and largest city of Suriname, the only country in South America where Dutch is the official language — to Canyon, Texas.

“I was a loner,” Jones recalled. “Because I had a heavy Dutch accent, which I don’t have now ... I kind of stumped people, because I looked like a black person, but then the language that I spoke was not one that they associated with black people. So I didn’t really have a lot of friends.”

Jones described her fascination with nature and desire to withdraw from others as a child as “kind of a healing process.

“I really just liked being alone and in nature,” she said. “So I got into the sciences. ... My ideal was to be an ecologist, like working in Antarctica on whales or something, but never having to deal with people. That was the dream.”

Jones credits some of the teachers she had growing up, as well as others in college, for helping her see science as both a serious pursuit and a way to connect not just with nature, but also with other people.

“Because I was so homesick when I first came to the States, I’m very much into place-based education,” she said. “And not just as you’re from an area (so) you learn about the natural elements and how it’s connected to the human elements, but also, if you’re moving to somewhere else ... a way to get grounded and to feel like you belong to your new area is to learn as much as you can.”

Jones’ own experience as an immigrant and her work with low-income populations, including many immigrants, has taught her that one of the ways in which people put themselves at ease in a new place is through gardening. If a transplant can grow some of the plants that remind them of their former home, she said, they form a connection to their new home through nature.

As the environmental educator for Tualatin Riverkeepers, Jones’ job responsibilities are varied. Last week, she worked with the nearby Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge on a workshop for educators about the best ways to teach and discuss indigenous topics. This week, she’s been leading a number of field trips, including several for students from Title 1 schools (which receive special funding due to large student populations that are eligible for a free or reduced school lunch) at Dirksen Nature Park in Tigard. This summer, she will be in charge of Riverkeepers’ weeklong summer camps.

Mike Skuja, the Riverkeepers’ executive director, praised Jones’ “really wonderful, outgoing, positive, extroverted personality.

“Having someone make environmental education come alive to the kids is really what we were looking for,” he said, adding, “She just really has the personality to make things interesting.”

One of the ways Jones said she engages students is by being honest about her own experience — or the lack thereof. She is still learning how to identify plants and trees in the Tualatin Valley, still getting used to the rain being cold in Oregon, and still getting familiar with the Native cultures of the Pacific Northwest.

“I like the fact that I’m also learning. ... For some of my students that I’ve worked with, it seems to make it more attainable for them,” Jones said. “They’ll ask me something and I will be very up-front with them, like, ‘I don’t know. I cannot tell you the name of this, but let’s think about how we’re going to describe it so we can ask a naturalist.’”

She added, “It’s been really fun, because I’ve learned a lot through the kids.”

Skuja said Jones was one of about 200 applicants for the job when it came open, and Jones said she applied without seriously expecting to be a finalist. But her environmental bona fides are solid for someone who just got her bachelor’s degree, from New College of Florida in 2008, and her master’s degree from Antioch University New England in 2012.

Among the people Jones has worked with is Monique Pool, who was recognized in 2015 as a CNN “Hero” for efforts with her nonprofit group Green Heritage Fund Suriname to rescue and protect sloths and other animals. Jones recalled making trips with Pool and her colleagues to remove sloths that people found in their garages and rehabilitate them, study dolphins in the Suriname River, and work with people from Suriname’s indigenous groups, which include both the descendants of escaped African slaves and a number of Native tribes from the country’s largely undeveloped interior.

“Working with (Pool) gave me a whole new view of nature is there for nature. It’s not necessarily to be entertainment for us, and that whenever you can, you need to make sure that we are saving nature for the sake of ... itself,” Jones said.

From after-school programs to field trips to camps, Jones is working with students and families throughout the Tualatin Valley. She said she’s hoping to pick up a few more skills to help in her job.

She took Spanish classes in college, but said she hasn’t retained much of it and wants to learn at least a few phrases for the benefit of Spanish-speakers with whom she works.

Even though she works at an organization called Riverkeepers, Jones admitted she has a phobia of water. But she is planning to take some swim lessons in the hopes of becoming more comfortable on the Tualatin River, she said. For now, she said, she isn’t letting fear hold her back.

“The thing that I’ve noticed is when I’m doing something to teach people or to make people comfortable, I don’t care that I’m scared anymore,” she said. “If you were like, ‘Charissa, you know, we’re friends, let’s go out on the river,’ I’d just be like, ‘You’re crazy. Why would I even do that? Why am I doing that?’ But if you’re like, ‘I have a group of kids,’ I’d be like, ‘Awesome. Let’s do it. Let’s show them how amazing this is,’ because I don’t want to pass that fear to the next generation, you know? ... And it is fun when the kids are there. It’s totally fun.”

By Mark Miller
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