Community Connections highlights the many leaders, partners, and neighbors who make a difference in our community. This month we are featuring Matthew Dodder, Executive Director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society.
Joining the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society (SCVAS) just a year and a half ago, Matthew Dodder hit the ground running as Executive Director in a time unlike any other. Dodder, a teacher of 20 years, graphic designer, and lifelong nature enthusiast, was able to quickly adapt to today’s new challenges and put his passion and experience to good use.
Joining the organization right before the pandemic, his history with teaching and digital media has been an asset to the SCVAS as they, like many organizations, had to transition their programming to a fully virtual environment. They created educational and entertaining video content, virtual tours, self-guided trips with recommendations of where to visit and what birds to look for, and more. While this switch was certainly a challenge, Dodder was proud of the resourcefulness and creativity of his team and sees great opportunity in the virtual realm. Last Spring, they hosted their annual Bird-a-Thon, a bird-counting fundraiser to support their education and conservation efforts, entirely virtually and had greater engagement than ever before – so much so, that they are planning to keep many of the virtual aspects in the future.
Even in his short time with the SCVAS, Dodder has already witnessed profound examples of the positive impact their work has had on the community. Helping to navigate the uncharted territory of virtual events, he’s had significant reminders of exactly why they do what they do. “People have told me how meaningful these experiences are to them. One man told me we saved his life with our virtual trips,” Dodder reflected. “It just makes my heart explode.”
Now, with a grant they received in December from the Open Space Authority Urban Grant Program, Dodder is excited to continue this momentum in their new environmental education program, the Oak Savanna Citizen Science project. Using the $79,000 they received from the Authority, they plan to offer a unique learning experience to high schoolers at the Laguna Seca seasonal wetland in North Coyote Valley. High schoolers will conduct field visits to the area and gather data that is to be coupled with in-class curriculum. These students will learn how to properly gather scientific field data and will gain experience using commonly used databases like E-Bird and iNaturalist. Not only will this program provide students with well-rounded research experience that can inform future endeavors, but it will also give them the unique experience to witness “nature at its best,” as Dodder puts it. “They will be outdoors, away from buildings, where they are free to think, listen, and learn - what an amazing thing to have that possibility for high schoolers,” he enthusiastically mentions.
The Laguna Seca seasonal wetland in North Coyote Valley, where SCVAS' Oak Savanna Citizen Science project will take place
Dodder, a passionate birder since the early age of 14, sees a remarkable opportunity in connecting with students at this age. “When I was in elementary school I started caring about cars and dinosaurs – when I was in high school, I started caring about nature, and that stuck with me my whole life,” reflected Dodder. “Cars and dinosaurs are definitely more on the side, now,” he jokes. Teenagers, as Dodder recalls, are particularly apt to developing lifelong interests, and he thinks that this could be an excellent way to reach a new group of future environmental leaders, not to mention extend the organization’s reach into communities they haven’t been before.
The purpose of the Authority’s grant program is to increase access to nature for communities where it is limited, and this new project is an exceptional opportunity for the SCVAS to do so. They are looking to use experience they’ve garnered from past projects, like the Wetlands Discovery Program, to inform this new endeavor. This 30-year flagship program gave third and fifth graders in the North Bay the chance to go on field trips and apply what they learned in follow-up projects, and it was highly successful. Now they are looking to adapt the project and focus it more south to serve communities they haven’t been before.
The Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society's Wetlands Discovery Program
They begin the first year of the three-year project in March, during which they will develop the curriculum, plan the trips and connect with the high schools that will be participating, with a priority for high schools that are local. The following two years will then involve getting the students out to North Coyote Valley and study their findings. Dodder is looking forward to the positive and lasting impact this project will have on local youth in our communities.