Super stewards

Johnson Elementary School students Arturo Garcia Jr., left, and Kekona Alameda clean up at Mast Park in Santee on May 11. The Cajon Valley Union School District teamed up with the San Diego River Park Foundation to clean up as part of a weeklong event called San Diego River Days. Karen Pearlman/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

SAN DIEGO — Nearly 100 kids from El Cajon, California, spent a few hours last week walking around Mast Park in Santee. Tongs in hand, they picked up everything from confetti to candy wrappers to a vaping device near the park’s playground. They put their finds in plastic bags to be discarded.

The third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Johnson Elementary School have spent part of this school year learning about bugs, plants and waterways and their dependence on each another for survival. Their visit to Mast Park, which runs next to the San Diego River, helped solidify the kids’ understanding about the connection of the river to the Pacific Ocean.

They learned from Sarah Hutmacher, the San Diego River Park Foundation chief associate director, how even those small items have tremendous impact on the environment. Hutmacher explained that “even one cigarette butt can spoil a whole quart of water.”

During a break from walking around the park in search of trash, fourth-grader Eric Pruden said his “two best finds” were a Nerf foam dart and a large metal screw that appeared to come from an automobile.

“I’m upset and I’m surprised at all the trash,” Eric said. “People think they can just come and throw trash and not pick it up. We’re here throwing away trash that doesn’t belong here. I feel ashamed of them. We shouldn’t be the person that has to clean up someone else’s trash. Everybody has to do their own part.”

Fourth-grade teacher Lia Killeen said some of the kids took a walking trip during the winter to Forester Creek, an 11-mile-long tributary of the San Diego River, after learning that what goes into the creek eventually makes it into the ocean.

“Learning about this has been eye opening for them,” Killeen said. “They see that their school yard trash ends up in that creek and then that creek ends up in the river and that ends up in the ocean. And they’ve all heard about ocean pollution.”

Forester Creek and its three tributaries flow through El Cajon in cement channels, and is being targeted for cleanup and improvement by the city with help from the River Park Foundation. Forester Creek connects to the San Diego River next door in Santee.

Hutmacher said the kids in November took part in a virtual field trip called “River Bugs are Cool” with the foundation’s educational team and were inspired to take action.

“People who go to our parks should throw their trash away,” said fourth-grader Jenna Elhabbal. “I feel good picking up trash to help the park and the river, but I feel like people should not be throwing their trash on the ground.”

The foundation encourages safe exploration and stewardship of the river and the kids’ trip fell during the week of the 18th annual San Diego River Days, celebrating the historic river that runs 52 miles from the mountains near Julian to Ocean Beach.

San Diego River Days, which advances the foundation’s mission to connect people with the river while empowering people to create a better future for the river and the region, included more than a dozen events for kids and families.

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