Stories from the Field

Board Spotlight: Seth Gurgel and Jen Leung

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On a recent autumn afternoon in Yosemite Valley, Seth Gurgel and Jen Leung looked on in delight as their two-year-old son Auggie marveled at the texture of fallen leaves and explored with his fingers the tiny seeds hidden within alder cones. Ada Meyer, a NatureBridge Environmental Science Educator, guided Auggie in these tactile experiences, watching his face light up with each new discovery. Although NatureBridge programming is geared toward school-age children, Ada’s background in early childhood development came shining through as she and Auggie excitedly engaged with their environment. Ada had volunteered to shepherd the young children of a few very special visitors this week, because the NatureBridge national and regional boards were on campus for the annual board retreat. “That was our first glimpse of the power of NatureBridge with our own kid,” Seth remarks.

Jen, a member of the Golden Gate regional board, and Seth, a member of the Yosemite regional board, made the drive from their Castro Valley, CA home to Yosemite National Park in mid-October, eager to connect with other members of NatureBridge leadership and introduce their young son to the marvels of Yosemite. Seth and Jen first became acquainted with NatureBridge several years ago, when they were researching venues for their wedding and came across NatureBridge in Olympic National Park. Despite the fact that the timing didn’t pan out for them to wed at NatureBridge Olympic, the couple’s interest was piqued, and when they moved to the Bay Area they reached out to the director of NatureBridge Golden Gate to learn more about the organization. The more they learned, the more Jen and Seth knew they wanted to be involved at NatureBridge.

The marriage of education and environmentalism at NatureBridge is really powerful.
Seth Gurgel, NatureBridge Yosemite Board Member

Before arriving at NatureBridge, Seth and Jen worked in human rights law in China, and their experiences there contributed to their passion for environmental and educational advocacy. When they discovered the ways in which NatureBridge programs serve students and expand access to our national parks, they knew this was an organization in which they wanted to invest their time and talents. “Environmental access is a huge social justice issue,” Jen says, and it’s an issue that is close to her and Seth’s hearts. “Access to these types of natural resources [like the national parks] is so much more complicated than we realize,” Seth says, drawing on his own experiences as a classroom teacher with AmeriCorps. “The barriers are often financial, or rooted in history; there are also cultural barriers. Sometimes there are hard-to-articulate barriers in people’s minds—they just can’t see themselves outside of the city or it elicits strong negative or even fearful emotions. The most important thing we can do is to get people there and give them opportunities to interact at their own pace and on their own terms.”

Access to these types of natural resources is so much more complicated than we realize.
Seth Gurgel, NatureBridge Yosemite Board Member

The couple knows first-hand how transformational time spent in the parks can be, having toured and camped in all of the national parks in the contiguous United States during a year-long road trip in 2017. Seth grew up in a family that camped regularly, and he remembers the thrill of seeing the distinctive brown and white national parks signs come into view as the family car pulled into various campsites over the years. “Visiting the national parks for me was always the most special time of the year, and there was this real sense of wonder around them,” he recalls.

For Jen, encountering the national parks “wasn’t a memory; it was a whole new world for me.” Growing up in Hong Kong and later living in some of the world’s largest cities, Jen admits that “being outdoors in nature was not a big part of my life.” When she and Seth embarked on their national parks tour, it was her second time ever camping. Jen was struck by the peacefulness and the quietness of the parks, contrasted to the bustle of life in the city. The diversity of the landscapes and the wildlife blew her away, even as she compared parks within the same state or region. “How lucky Americans are to have something like the national parks,” Jen remarks. “Many places in the world do not value or strive to protect the nature they have.”

NatureBridge is connecting kids to nature. As simple as that sounds, I do think the impacts are long-lasting and very broad.
Jen Leung, NatureBridge Golden Gate Board Member

As NatureBridge board members, Jen and Seth are committed to prioritizing issues of access to public lands, climate education and environmental stewardship for young people. These commitments have become all the more personal for them since they became parents themselves. “What experiences do we want our children to have and how do we want them to engage in their community?” Jen describes, reflecting on why the family’s involvement with NatureBridge is so important to them. The glimpses of the student experience they witnessed while in Yosemite with Auggie and Ada further confirmed the couple’s convictions. “To see my child fully engaging in the natural world with a NatureBridge educator was especially touching,” Jen says. “That spirit that Ada has lives in all the NatureBridge staff and board members that we’ve met,” Seth adds. 

A deep love of nature and a passion for sharing that love with the next generation permeates NatureBridge as an organization, Jen and Seth assert, and they’re grateful for the opportunity to join with other mission-driven leaders in service of those commitments. “Education has to be made tangible for people for full community buy-in,” Seth concludes. “It starts with two-year-olds getting their hands dirty!”

Photos courtesy of Jen Leung

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