Wendy Dreskin has worked for decades to encourage people of all ages, from preschoolers to seniors, to connect with and learn about the environment. She has inspired generations of environmental stewards who have developed a sense of place, and an understanding of, and responsibility for, our open spaces in Marin and beyond.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Wendy fell in love with nature in California on biannual visits to her uncle and her mother’s two closest friends, and by third grade declared in a school composition that her goal was to live in California when she grew up. That goal was realized when she transferred from the University of Chicago to UC Berkeley in 1969. After graduation in 1970, Dreskin moved to Marin and never left. Here she met her husband and soulmate, William Dreskin, who shares her love of the outdoors, and, as a professional nature photographer, often takes the photographs she uses in her indoor classes. With a degree in philosophy and an elementary teaching credential from Dominican University, she jokes that she got into nature education by the back door. Dreskin tells children she is proof that learning does not end when you leave school since she learned most of what she teaches after her formal schooling ended.
In the early 1970s Dreskin taught Nursery Nature at the Louise Boyd Museum in San Rafael. She also took “ambassador animals” to local preschools and elementary schools. She founded a non-profit preschool in 1973 which she directed for five years, then pursued a writing career while raising two daughters. Dreskin co-authored a non-fiction book with her husband, and wrote magazine articles on nature, parenting, and education. In 1992 she returned to nature education and became associated with Terwilliger Nature Education. After the merger in which WildCare was formed, the nature education program she was working with ended and she continued children’s nature education classes independently.
Dreskin shows children how much learning can happen outside the classroom. She helps kids connect with nature, providing a hands-on experience. She stimulates their curiosity and their joy of being out in nature. When one third grader was invited to a friend’s house to play video games, he said, “Why would I want to be indoors looking at a computer screen when I could be outdoors finding salamanders?” He went on to introduce his friend to the excitement of finding Arboreal Salamanders, Ensatinas, and California Slender Salamanders. Besides salamanders, Wendy introduces students to birds, butterflies and other insects, spiders, mushrooms, reptiles, mammals and more. She taught through the Odyssey program for gifted children at Dominican for four summers, and she has worked with home school students with various challenges. She guides all children with her enthusiasm, knowledge, dedication, and vision.
The influence she has had over these young people has expressed itself in many ways. Her students raised money to help oil-soaked birds after the Cosco-Busan Oil spill. She has inspired them to participate in the Marin and Point Reyes Christmas Bird Counts (adult), Marin and Point Reyes Christmas Bird Counts for Kids, Mycoblitzes at Point Reyes National Seashore, Rare-Plant-a-thons at Point Reyes National Seashore, North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Counts (with students she had in kindergarten returning to do the annual Marin Count in June even after going off to college!), and volunteering at WildCare. Two students are active in the Bay Area Chapter of the California Young Birders Club and one got a scholarship to attend the Western Field Ornithology Conference. Many have returned as middle and high school students to assist with classes for younger children. Her students have also won awards and honors. Three of her birding students were among the fifteen selected on the basis of their essays to go on a walk with the famous artist and ornithologist David Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America. One student won first place in a contest sponsored by Sea Turtle Restoration Project for her poster.
The relationships Wendy forms with her students often last for decades, into college and graduate school and beyond. Many students stay in touch with her, visiting her when they are home from college and joining her for minus tide hikes, mushroom forays, birding, or other activities. One college freshman who started with Dreskin in preschool has not missed a Christmas Bird Count with her in eleven years. Another who is in graduate school was able to sub for her College of Marin classes. One who became a hydrologist joked, “I still get to play in creeks!” Those who have gone into the sciences are eager to discuss their research. Others maintain their love of the outdoors while going into other fields.
Dreskin also shares her knowledge and love of nature with adults through College of Marin Community Education where she has been teaching the class Meandering in Marin since 1998. In this hiking/nature class, participants learn about everything from birds, galls, and lichens, to wildflowers and mushrooms. Wendy’s adult students have been inspired to increase their involvement in nature education and conservation in many ways, becoming docents at Audubon Canyon Ranch, serving on boards of environmental non-profits, volunteering for Coastal Cleanup Day, becoming field observers for Hawk Watch through the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, and citizen scientists recording butterfly populations for the North American Butterfly Association annual Butterfly Count and the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, as well as donating to various local and national environmental non-profit organizations. Dreskin has reached both adults and families with her Point Reyes Field Institute classes on wildflowers, tide pool life, and butterflies.
Dreskin served as education chair for the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society from 1993 to 2003. Since 1998 she has been bringing the Junior Botanist Program that she created to schools in Marin as a volunteer, reaching over 5000 students. The program teaches children to identify California native trees, ferns, wildflowers, and grasses and gain an understanding of why native plants are important. In 2002 she collaborated with the Richardson Bay Audubon Center to create a Junior Bird Watcher Program modeled on the successful Junior Botanist Program. This program is also free to Marin County schools. When National Audubon dropped the program, she moved it to Marin Audubon and continued to volunteer her time.
Since 2005 Dreskin has coordinated the Marin count for the North American Butterfly Association’s annual Butterfly Count, the butterfly equivalent of the Christmas Bird Count. Other volunteer activities include leading walks for the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, Olompali People, and LandPaths (Sonoma Valley Land Trust), and teaching classes at the Point Reyes Birding and Nature Festival.
Inspired by a trip to Tanzania in 2012, Dreskin began leading safaris to Tanzania in 2014. Many of the participants expressed that it was a life-changing experience for them. Some have joined her in efforts to save rhinos and elephants from extinction in the wild. On the Tanzania trip in 2014 people laughingly called her “Mama Wendy” because in addition to guiding she was always dispensing salve for itchy insect bites, checking on anyone who wasn’t at dinner, and looking out for each participants’ needs. She is also “Mama Wendy” to a Maasai organization she supports in their work to end early marriage and female genital mutilation, and “Grandma” to a small orphanage. The 2018 safari will include an optional four days of volunteering at an elementary school near Lake Victoria. In Winter Quarter 2015 Dreskin taught a class at College of Marin on wildlife in Tanzania using her husband William Dreskin’s outstanding wildlife photographs.
In 2017 Dreskin again had the opportunity to write, contributing a weekly hiking and nature column to the Marin Independent Journal. By including information on the flora and fauna that can be seen on each hike, she inspires hikers to notice the ferns, mushrooms, and butterflies along the way, and appreciate that it is as important as getting to the top of the mountain or completing those 10,000 steps.
Other awards Dreskin has received are the Johns Hopkins University Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth Teacher Recognition Award in 1998 and the Third Annual Terwilliger Environmental Award 2003.
Dreskin especially enjoys introducing little girls to traditionally “icky” or “scary” things in nature. By lovingly handling spiders and snakes, she sets an example. Some teaching moments Dreskin remembers with a smile are a kindergartner gently holding a maggot she found in a decaying mushroom and saying with delight, “I’m going to name her Maggie!” and a time when she asked a first-grade class who would like to hold a cockroach. A little girl excitedly raised her hand declaring, “I do!” Dreskin has no plans for retiring, and hopes to introduce girls and boys and adults to many more wonders of nature in the coming years.