Rachel Stendahl Sows Seeds of Change

“Somebody should give Rachel Stendahl a medal.”

That’s what a comment from a stranger on an article in The Daily Chronicle said about her achievements in education. The story was featured on the front page when it was published.

Six years after starting her adjudicated youth environmental science program for Lewis County and Thurston County Detention Centers, she finally got that medal.

“It was kind of a full-circle moment for me,” says Stendahl. “It felt good to be recognized, especially working through this pandemic.”

Stendahl received the 2021 Green Medalist Award from EarthGen; a statewide, nonprofit organization focused on environmental and justice inequity education.

Her official title is the outdoor education coordinator for ESD 113. She runs the Chehalis Basin Education Consortium.

Since 2015, she’s worked with kids throughout the whole Chehalis Basin watershed in this position.

Part of this program brings her to the aforementioned detention centers, where she provides a science curriculum to the students there through workshops.

She doesn’t do it all on her own, however. Mike McDonald, a paraprofessional with the Chehalis School District, worked with the students on the on-site garden prior to her arrival. The two teamed up, and they’ve been a formidable force ever since.

They wrote their first grant together for the program, and, to her surprise, it was accepted on the first try.

“I’m so glad that he’s back,” states Stendahl. “He’s the real expert in terms of the hands on the ground. It’s really Mike who’s put in all this work with this beautiful garden.”

For 12 years—with a small break in between­—McDonald has been keeping the garden program special. It adds another unique, hands-on element to the curriculum that Stendahl brings to the detention center.

Zucchini, carrots, watermelon, tomatoes, etc., are in abundance within the confines of the garden. The students are free to take the produce with them for a tasty snack.

“The look on a kid’s face when they’ve never eaten a fresh piece of broccoli, or radish, or tomato, or didn’t know that a cucumber is a pickle; that end of it I really love,” McDonald says.

“There’s a lot of studies about how gardening is calming and brings out a lot of nurturing characteristics, which is especially good for incarcerated individuals,” remarks Stendahl.

“Getting outside, in general, can improve mood which leads to less issues in the detention center.”

The future of the gardening program is bright as they will have an expanded gardening area after a renovation in the coming year.

Before working at ESD 113, Stendahl worked for a program called the Sustainability in Prisons Project. It gave her the basis for her current workshops.

While there, she worked with incarcerated adults in gardening and other environmental science-related programs. She noticed that no one was providing a complete program like this for incarcerated children and decided to make the change.

Gardening is a significant part of the program, but it’s not the only topic studied and not the only hands-on project for the children.

Before the pandemic, Stendahl would try to do at least two workshops a month, supplying the materials herself.

Topics included salmon lifecycles, climate change, water quality, owl pellets, and more. Every so often, she invites environmental professionals in to lead a lesson.

One such example is the Pacific Shellfish Institute who is a regular guest. They bring along everything from plankton and microscopes to mussels in tanks.

The students have also been treated to learning about salmon by the Nisqually River Education Project. Salmon are brought in, dissected, and studied.

Water quality is the basis of the watershed program and Stendahl’s favorite topic. Every so often, she’ll bring in tests and water from nearby areas and compare the results with other students’ data.

They measure whether or not the quality is good for salmon life and study habitat restoration to improve their environment.

“A favorite [topic] actually is the salmon lifecycle bracelets,” Stendahl delights. “I still get students who come back telling me they still wear theirs. I’ve probably done that workshop 10 times in six years. It’s a huge hit.”

Stendahl is proud of the program that she’s been able to build. She says it’s her favorite part of the job.

This program means a lot more to her than just teaching science and gardening with the kids. Her favorite part of the job is just being there and supporting the kids, especially those who may not have as much support in their home lives.

“Sometimes I come down and maybe my lesson plan is a little thrown together,” admits Stendahl. “But I’m there and that’s what matters.”