Ann Marie Morrison grew up in Absecon just a few miles from the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway Township. She started volunteering there a few years ago, and realized while she loved nature, she didn't know a lot about it.
"Visitors would ask 'Do you know what that flower is, or that tree, or that bird' -and I didn't," she said.
In 2012, she enrolled in the Volunteer Master Naturalist Course at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and now says she is more confident when she helps visitors at the refuge.
"I took it so I could do a better job," she said.
The 40-hour course is offered through a partnership between the college and the refuge. A new session will be held April 9 through May 14. The cost is $249, and scholarships are available. Classes meet 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays at the refuge, and field trips are held on Saturdays and will include a kayaking trip at Sedge Island located off Island Beach State Park, a driving tour of Wildlife Drive and exploring the foot trails at Forsythe.
Cynthia Sosnowski, former associate dean of continuing education at Stockton, said they began the program because the Forsythe staff wanted to train volunteers who could be more educated and active in the work, like docents. They researched similar programs in other states and offered the first class in 2005.
"It was so popular we filled the second class in 2006 from the 2005 waiting list," Sosnowski said. She said it is the only program like it in New Jersey. Rutgers offers an environmental steward program, but Sosnowski said that is more academically based.
"This is a hands-on program," she said.
Forsythe Volunteer Coordinator Sandy Perchetti said 15 or 20 of their almost 100 active volunteers have completed the VMN course. She said it gives them a really good foundation, and many now teach the environmental education classes at the refuge.
She said the trained volunteers have become more crucial as budgets are cut and people are not replaced.
"They do everything right along with us," she said. "The visitor's center is open seven days a week and it's totally run by volunteers."
Anne Harlan, of Egg Harbor Township, is a volunteer guide on the tram tours. A birder, she decided to take the course in 2011 after retiring from her job at the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center in 2006 and volunteering at the refuge.
"I did the water bird survey, and Sandy (Perchetti) suggested I take the course," she said. "There were so many things I didn't know. But it was so much fun."
She said the course provides a balanced view of nature, and even helped her in her own garden at home where she installed a butterfly garden and learned how to avoid invasive plants.
She said the course is great for anyone who likes to be outdoors, or just likes nature. Her husband, Jay Nichols, took the course with her, and works on the water fowl surveys and volunteers in the visitor center.
Michael Stanton, of Somers Point, is an account manager for Coca Cola during the week, and a volunteer master naturalist on weekends. He took the course three years ago to broaden his knowledge.
"I've been into birds and plants for a long time," he said. "I had done a lot of guided walks and figured I could be a guide too."
He now works in the refuge store and also leads plant and bird walks. He's currently doing a survey of plants at the refuge, and using his knowledge to get rid of invasive plants in his own yard.
"I'm trying to get rid of the bad plants and put in good ones," he said.
Stockton Professor Patrick Hossay, who teaches land management and endangered species for the program, said people who take the course are very interested in nature and like to be outdoors. Some own tourism-based businesses in the area and like to be more informed.
"The classes are three hours long and sometimes we still have a hard time getting done on time," he said.
Volunteers must commit to working 40 hours per year and completing at least eight hours of new educational programs each year, which volunteers said is not difficult. Stanton is attending a class on plant propagation at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority. Harlan attended a program on tree identification at Belleplain State Forest.
Volunteers can also work at other nature centers, such as the Wetlands Institute. Harlan is on the board of the Atlantic City Aquarium and said the course gave her a greater understanding of native species. She said the course has helped her appreciate and enjoy nature even more.
Morrison spends about three days per week at the refuge, and has turned volunteering into an educational family activity with her son John, 11, and daughter Rachel, 8.
"They've become regulars here, too," she said.
Contact Diane D'Amico:
a Master Naturalist
The Volunteer Master Naturalist Course will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays, April 9 through May 14 at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge headquarters building in Galloway Township. Saturday field trips run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and include a kayaking trip at Sedge Island off Island Beach State Park, an eight-mile driving tour of Wildlife Drive and exploring the foot trails at Forsythe.
The cost is $249, and scholarships are available. Apply at stockton.edu/cs, click on "course offerings" and then select "certificate programs."
For more information, contact Stockton College Continuing Studies at NJVMN@
stockton.edu or call 609-652-4227.