Last year at this time, we shared the story of Sofia Lewanski, a middle schooler in Hamilton who participated in our Visiting Naturalist in the Schools program. In a heartfelt essay, Sofia detailed how meaningful the program had been for her, how strongly she had connected with Teaching Naturalist Drew Lefebvre, and how inspirational the program had been in helping her dream of a future career in ornithology. During this year’s holiday giving campaign, we wanted to share a follow-up story as Sofia continues to look to MNHC for guidance, education, and mentorship in pursuing her passion for the natural world—and for birds in particular.
After participating in the Visiting Naturalist Program, Sofia and Drew continued to keep in touch. Drew shared books she thought Sofia might enjoy, and Sofia sent detailed letters of species she’d learned about, observed, or hoped to observe. At the end of sixth grade, Sofia shared a copy of a school project she had created. Birds of the Bitterroot: A Children’s Bird Guide contains 25 locally common bird species, complete with life history, fun facts, and original color drawings of each one.
After hearing that MNHC was offering a summer camp for her age group, Sofia registered right away. She joined Drew and fellow Teaching Naturalist Bailey Zook, plus 11 other middle schoolers, for a week of camping, nature observation and other activities, including helping at a University of Montana bird-banding station where she got to hold a wild bird for the first time.
Since then, Sofia and her family have not been strangers at MNHC! Most recently, Sofia called for help with a school paper, spending a few minutes on the phone interviewing Drew for a research project on bird populations in Ravalli County.
For Drew, mentoring Sofia has been a deeply rewarding experience. Finding an eager, like-minded personality in Sofia showcases how important naturalist education truly is—and not just for students like her, but also for those who don’t dream of a career in ornithology. The Visiting Naturalist Program touches students in ways both large and small, both immediately obvious and more subtle. As an educator, forging real relationships based on shared love for the natural world is a most fulfilling and humbling task, one which MNHC strives to succeed at every day.