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On touching a sea squirt, and other adventures with nature

Connecting with KIDS for the BAY's Mandi Billinge

by on February 22, 2012

Mandi Billinge
Mandi Billinge

Inspired by a teaching stint with inner-city kids 20 years ago, English-born teacher Mandi Billinge founded an organization that gives thousands of Bay Area children their first hands-on experience with nature. Her nonprofit KIDS for the BAY recently received the Conservation Award for Environmental Education from the John Muir Association.

BN: Where did you grow up? When did you move to the Bay Area, and what convinced you to stay?

MB: I am originally from County Durham in the North East of England, where the movie and musical Billy Elliott is set! I was a fourth-grade teacher in a school in inner-city London before moving to the Bay Area in 1992.

For two summers I worked at Camp Mendocino, in a redwood forest with children from the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club. I had a wonderful experience living with and teaching children, who were mostly from “the projects” and spending time outdoors for the first time in their lives, about the wonders of nature. I was inspired to move to the Bay Area to continue to work with urban children and to create my own environmental education organization for them and their teachers.

BN: And that was KIDS for the BAY (KftB)?

MB: Yes. When I first moved here I wanted to bring the same kinds of exciting, hands-on environmental science projects into elementary schools that I used to teach in my school in England. Having been a classroom teacher myself, I knew the type of support that teachers need to bring hands-on science into the classroom and to take a class of excited students into the outdoors. Most elementary-school teachers don’t have a science background, so KIDS for the BAY is aimed at helping them teach hands-on science in the classroom and in the outdoors.

BN: How many teachers and students does KftB serve each year?

MB: KftB partners with around 150 teachers and 4,000 K-5th grade students each year. This coming fall we’ll celebrate our 20th anniversary and achieve our goal of placing 60,000 Inspired Environmentalists in KftB programs! We have a school-wide impact because we partner with grade-level teams of teachers, parents and the school principal. We also provide a unique opportunity for teachers to learn alongside their students. Teachers get academic credit units, an equipment kit, and our curriculum guides so that they can continue teaching our programs year after year. The goal is for our partner schools to integrate our programs into their school-wide curriculum and culture.

BN: We’ve all heard about “Last Child in the Woods.” Are the children you serve “nature-deprived”? How does KftB address this issue?

MB: Most children today are “nature deprived.” KftB mostly partners with low-income, urban schools and there is a lot of crime and concrete in these neighborhoods that keeps children indoors. But in all types of neighborhoods today, most children are inside with computers, video games, and TV and spending a decreasing amount of time outside.

Many of the students we work with in KIDS for the BAY have never touched the water of a creek, held a crab or visited a beach. KftB takes children who would not otherwise have this opportunity on field trips to a local creek, to San Francisco Bay, and to the Pacific Ocean. KftB students get to “meet the creek,” touch the water, catch mayfly nymphs in nets, and observe them in field microscopes. They get to hold a crab, touch a sea squirt, dig in the sand, see a purple ochre sea star. For most of our students this is their first time connecting with nature in a natural habitat.

BN: What else do you teach?

MB: We also teach how everything within the watershed is interconnected, from urban streets to storm drains, which lead to the local creek, the bay and the ocean. We teach how pollution affects all the organisms in a food web, including people, especially people who fish from the bay and eat the food they catch.

One of the most important things we teach is that everyone has the right to live in a clean and healthy environment and we empower our students to take action. KftB Environmentalists help the environment every day by conserving water, practicing the Four Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle and rot), cleaning up their school campuses, and keeping the storm drains around their schools and homes clean. These are our future environmental leaders!

Visit KIDS for the BAY to learn more about this program.

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Lisa-elliott on February 23rd, 2012 at 12:00 am

An awe-inspiring project, developed by an inspirational woman.

Kirk on February 23rd, 2012 at 12:00 am

I love this! “Like” is not strong enough. Getting kids literally into the environment from which all Life springs connects them In a way that will promote a civil society. Yay for this!

baynature on February 23rd, 2012 at 12:00 am

Well said, Kirk!

Brenda Salgado on February 23rd, 2012 at 12:00 am

This is a wonderful organization. So glad to see Bay Nature highlighting their great work. I had the honor to work for them and serve on their board in the past, and continue to be inspired by the impact it has on youth, teachers, families and communities.

Krista Mendelsohn on February 23rd, 2012 at 12:00 am

Way to go, KIDS for the BAY! As a former employee, I can attest to the fact that KftB really impacts students, teachers, families and principals. The work that KftB does changes lives!!

Jacqui Billinge on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am

She was raised respecting the environmen tand being constantly in the environment- so,natural progression took her to a great place to follow it through:and she certaily did …..
What a brilliant achievemet ! What a team !
Suo proud of you, Mandi –  60,000 inspired environmentalists in your programme and thousands more to come….. wow…      ( Yer  mum ).

Jacquibillinge on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am


Jacquibillinge on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am


Jacquibillinge on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am


Jacquibillinge on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am


Jacquibillinge on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am


Jacqui Billinge on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am

hello di

Jacquibillinge on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am

She was raised respecting the environment and being constantly in the environment- so natural progression took her to a great place to follow it through, and she certainly did….
What a brilliant achievement ! What a great team !
So proud of you , Mandi 60,000 inspired environmentalists in your Programme and thousands more to come…..wow… ( Your mum )

Jacqui Billinge on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am

She was raised respecting the environment and being constantly in the environment-  so natural progression took her to a great place to follow it through; and she certainly did…..
What a brilliant achievement!  What a team!
So proud of you, Mandi-  60,000 inspired environmentalists in your programme and thousands more to come…. Wow…..  (Your mum) .

Cam Wolff on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am

As an older environmental educator, Mandi has for years been an inspiration to me — it is comforting to know that she and those she mentors are coming along after I’m long gone.  I admire her combination method of a school team approach and training the teachers alongside the students — much more likely to create an ongoing program after KftB has moved on to other schools.  THANK YOU, MANDI, and KftB!!!

Pammers60 on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am

Hands down, the most useful and exciting curriculum (for teachers and students!) that I used during my teaching years. The content is full of excellent environmental ed information, and the methods used to get to the content via “hands on” learning are  so creative that we never tired of the activities. Mandi, your creativity and the support for teachers using the curriculum still inspire me today. To use this curriculum again would be the only reason I would ever consider “unretiring”! Congratulations to  KFtB for all the students that you have inspired! Pam Auxter

Nicole on February 24th, 2012 at 12:00 am

Wow! Great article, and much deserved recognition for your truly awesome program!!

Sarahjrem on February 25th, 2012 at 12:00 am

Way to go KftB!!  I agree with a previous comment, “like” is not a strong enough word!  We not only like and admire this program, our society is depending on it.  Mandi has created a strong, sustainable organization designed to help our own natural environment become strong and sustainable, through inspired and educated youth – our future.  

James on February 25th, 2012 at 12:00 am

How inspirational to hear what you can accomplish if you just see a need and go for it. Working to provide perspective changing experiences for children is really paying it forward. I’m glad that California attracts people of this quality from around the world. 

ficozier on February 25th, 2012 at 12:00 am

A very clear, concise and at the same time exciting explanation, Mandi, of the teaching you and your staff are doing!  All of us, especially our young people will need to know, love, protect and how to work with our local environment as we move into a new stage of life on this warming, unpredictable earth, without an oil driven economy. 

Profmalc on February 27th, 2012 at 12:00 am

great work mandi, wonderful project, lots of impact, really good grass roots work

Jim on February 27th, 2012 at 12:00 am

Absolutely amazing. Very impressed with Mandi’s committment to helping young people. I cannot praise this project, and Mandi’s leadership qualities any more.
Congratulations onrunning an excellent programme

Karen Joanne on February 28th, 2012 at 12:00 am

What an inspired organisation led by a visionary Director in Mandi Billinge!  I have been fortunate enough to have visited the ‘Kids for the Bay’ offices and met with Mandi and her staff there.  I was given a very warm welcome and felt hugely impressed by Mandi’s longstanding dedication and enthusiasm for environmental education and social justice for the children of the Bay area and beyond.  The ‘Kids for the Bay’ team make learning fun and accessible and I have no doubt that all of the children touched by this program will gain something very special and empowering from it and share this with their own families and friends. We all remember the teachers and lessons which inspired us as children.  In a world where children spend so much time indoors on mobile phones and computers, the outdoor learning experiences offered to them by ‘Kids for the Bay’ are invaluable to their shared learning and wellbeing.  I wholly appreciate and support the moral framework of this organisation- educating children to care for the environment and each other so contributing to them becoming aware and good neighbours and citizens.  This is a unique organisation wholly deserving of the awards it has received and long may it continue to thrive.         

Nicole on February 29th, 2012 at 12:00 am

Reading this article reminds me how valuable Mand’s KftB program is for environmental education and future earth-citizen stewartship for our youth.

Zwtwelcome on March 3rd, 2012 at 12:00 am

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Jill Hollingworth on March 6th, 2012 at 12:00 am

Wow, I tried to write this yesterday, but wil ldo so again, hoping to get it right!!!!
Congrats on a wonderful project that is inspirational and is so heartening ,when we read alll the stuff you are up against!!!! Best wishes from Durham , England, Jill and Doug

Cbarnecut on March 8th, 2012 at 12:00 am

So wonderful to see Environmental Ed for children recognized for its value in teaching our future citizens how to take care of our World’s resources! Thank you for writing this piece & for the support in publishing to raise everyone’s awareness!

Tricia on March 13th, 2012 at 12:00 am

Fabulous work, Mandi! Very inspirational – wish I could go back and be a kid again learning from you!

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