For the past six years, Betsy Sanville has been opening the eyes of grammar-school children to the wonder of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the wetlands that stretch from Sebastopol to Cotati.
"Sometimes it is the first time for children to explore off the blacktop," said Sanville, a docent for the Laguna foundation. "We talk about animal tracks, who was walking there before you. We talk about bird migration and sneak in information about the function of the wetlands system. It cleans the water and stops floods."
As teacher in the Laguna Learning program, however, her eyes have been opened as well.
"I was a nature appreciator before, but it has turned me into a nature lover, finding how healing it is to spend time outside," Sanville said. "It has been enriching."
The greatest part is the students' reaction.
"I love sharing in the wonder with the children, watching them have one of those 'ah-ha' experiences of nature," Sanville said. "I like the kid connections. It keeps you lighthearted."
Children may say "eewww" when first looking at animal scats, but get more interested when closer examination shows apple seeds from a nearby tree.
She and the students have found crawdads in the water, picked up snakes along the paths and set up field scopes to watch three fuzzy babies in the nest of a great horned owl.
"Animals are popular. There are foxes, raccoons and badgers, but a lot are nocturnal. Sometimes we see a jackrabbit, but they run away pretty quickly," Sanville said. "Of course we all crave to see a bobcat, but we have not seen one."
Every student group usually has bug-lovers, so they take a lot of time looking at insects under special magnifying glasses, all part of the learning experience.
"By the time they leave, they look more closely at something floating in the water or at a drop of water on a spider web," she said.
Sanville, 53, a Forestville resident, is one of 55 docents for the foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and providing education about the Laguna.
"Betsy has an amazing enthusiasm that is infectious," said Christine Fontaine, director of the Laguna's education programs.
"Everyone who comes to the program has something special to offer. For Betsy, it is her enthusiasm. She is excited about every aspect of nature, and it is contagious."
Since 1999, when the learning program was founded, 6,800 second-, third- and fourth-graders in school districts bordering the Laguna have been involved in the program.
Classroom visits and field trips happen twice a year, in the spring and fall, for about 40 classes and 1,000 students, Fontaine said.
Sanville said the program is intended to get children interested in the Laguna, which helps promote the idea of preserving it.
The docents themselves train one day a week for 12 weeks and pay $145 for the classes.
Sanville is a Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and hospice nurse who knew little about the Laguna before becoming a docent.
"I really learned about it by taking the classes," she said. "I lived in west county for 25 years and drove over Highway 12 and Occidental Road and wondered why it was a lake sometimes and a field sometimes."
You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or email@example.com.