By STEFAN MODRICH
Jan Kolk and her husband, Kevin Kolk, were at a crossroads when he retired from Fort Bend ISD in March of last year. She was still teaching at Alief ISD, but wanted to find a way for her and her husband to spend more of their free time together doing things they both enjoyed.
So she spoke with Shannon Westveer, vice president of the Texas Master Naturalists (TMN) Coastal Prairie Chapter, a volunteer organization that partners with Texas A&M Agrilife Extension and Texas Parks and Wildlife and which provides a host of virtual and in-person classes on a variety of topics, including botany, ecology, bird-watching and geology.
“We’ve been outside people all our lives,” said Jan Kolk, who lives in the northeast part of Fort Bend County. “We’ve seen some naturalist things, and thought he’d really enjoy taking the classes and learning more and seeing what he could do since he had some free time.”
Kolk attended evening and weekend classes until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when her teaching course load and her TMN classes shifted online, and she later retired in June of 2020, which she said she had planned well before the pandemic.
She said one benefit of the virtual offerings was the chance to learn from experts in a variety of natural science fields from around the state without requiring them to travel outside the Houston area.
“One thing that COVID has taught us all is the best places to be is outside,” Westveer said. “COVID has literally reconnected people to their own yards, their outdoor spaces that they’ve kind of forgotten about because we went about the business of everyday life. But when you’re stuck at home and you’re not able to go to restaurants, bars, and movies, you go outdoors. And you learn that there’s a whole world of nature out there waiting to be seen and engaged in.”
Westveer said the pandemic forced her TMN chapter to reinvent, and that some 2020 field trips to area parks and nature preserves were postponed from spring to fall. She said they will continue to wear masks and have stations with small groups of people, with no more than six participants and an instructor.
Becoming a certified Texas Master Naturalist is limited to those age 18 and older and requires 40 hours of initial training (which can be accrued by taking classes), eight hours of advanced training and 40 hours of preapproved volunteer service in Fort Bend County and Waller County. The organization has 48 chapters across Texas.
John Rouane, who lives in Needville, said he moved to Texas from Montana, where he studied agriculture at Montana State University. He noted that the Texas Gulf Coast received a much larger share of annual rainfall than his previous home in Eastern Montana.
He was curious about the vast, lush greenery that enveloped his new surroundings. He said the threat of COVID-19 has made it more difficult to gather in groups and the isolation made it harder to meet neighbors.
“Coming from Montana, the only ones we know here are some close friends of my son and his family,” Rouane said. “We’re slowly getting more and more familiar with some of the people in the community. It’s not like where we came from in Montana where we grew up, we knew everybody and they all knew us and all our kids.”
Rouane said he was impressed with Brazos Bend State Park in Needville, where he was able to take some visiting family to see alligators. And he’s been busy spending time creating a miniature prairie in his yard, planting native grasses he’s learned about from TMN programs.
While many people are of retirement age who participate in TMN events, Kolk said the pandemic resulted in a higher turnout of younger adults. She said about one-fifth of her classes had people ranging from ages 30-50 who had more recreational time due to the fact they were working from home or working reduced hours due to COVID-19.
Another bright spot of TMN for Kolk was the chance to discover Seabourne Creek Nature Park in Rosenberg, which features 164 acres of wetlands, trails, a prairie restoration area and a butterfly garden.
“I didn’t even know it existed,” Kolk said. “I didn’t even know it was there until I started taking classes and going, ‘What is this place?’ It is just an amazing park. It’s sort of fun to be part of a group that is helping to change that area that was not a real nature park into something the community can be very proud of.”
The Kolks are now volunteering to recruit new members to the chapter.
“Lots of folks are taking the time right now to be outside and appreciate nature and what it has to offer,” Jan Kolk said. “It’s good to work with people who find that as a mission, to try and share the information about nature and create an environment that people can explore in.”
For more information about the Texas Master Naturalists Coastal Prairie chapter, call 832-225-6936 or visit https://txmn.org/coastal/