CPS Energy sponsors youth photography program to inspire environmental stewardship

Guest blogger, Stephanie “Steffi” Ockenfels, works in CPS Energy’s Corporate Responsibility department and proudly serves on Green Spaces Alliance’s Board.

On Saturday, May 2, I left the house with a camera, water bottle, cell phone and my face mask and made my way to Bulverde Oaks Nature Preserve, a 31-acre parcel of land situated off Loop 1604 and Judson Road. Green Spaces Alliance is a nonprofit organization with a mission to sustain the natural environment and enhance urban spaces through land conservation, community engagement and education. They own the property and invite the public to enjoy self-guided nature hikes on the first Saturday of each month. Given our current pandemic, Green Spaces staff-initiated safety protocols – only a few guests could walk the trail at a time, either alone or with a family group that had pre-registered and arrived together.

The preserve is a sanctuary for indigenous wildlife and plants and serves as inspiration for students who take part in the Picture Your World (PYW) Youth Photography Program. PYW encourages a creative approach to photography while promoting environmental stewardship among youth through in-class instruction and weekend workshops at area parks.

Committed to environmental responsibility, CPS Energy has sponsored the program since 2012. The support has helped Green Spaces expand programming and education to Title 1 elementary schools. Over the past eight years, the program has more than doubled in capacity and serves over 600 students annually.

Picture Your World is incredible and transformative. Countless studies show that children who spend time in nature are not only happier, healthier and smarter but do better in school and have higher self-esteem. They’re also more cooperative with others, good problem solvers, feel more capable and confident and feel a greater connection to nature.

At weekend PYW workshops, I saw students get down in the dirt and contort their bodies to get their shot. They quietly and deliberately discover the space they’re in. While a volunteer Master Naturalist describes the local wildlife and flora, PYW program manager Carra Garza provides guidance on the art and science of nature photography. Through Carra’s carefully constructed approach, the program addresses the intellectual, creative, and emotional needs of students by deepening their relationship with Texas’ rich natural environment.

A reptilian sentry. A fawn in repose. A feather suspended in a sunset.  These are some of the magical images captured by students who participated in the 2020 Picture Your World Youth Photography Exhibition. PYW follows the school year, from September through May, and culminates with a juried exhibition and awards ceremony.

Fortunately, most of the weekend and classroom workshops occurred before Stay Home, Work Safe orders took effect. With COVID-19 in our midst, Green Spaces staff pivoted and revealed award-winning and honorable mention photos on their website through a flipbook on May 7. The collection was accompanied by encouraging remarks from Carra and the nonprofit’s CEO, Doug Dillow.

You can view the video here:

The 2020 competition photos also can be seen outdoors! Downtown pedestrians can experience these inspired images of local wildlife and native plants as they pass by the Will Naylor Smith River Walk Plaza. Throughout May, The Tobin Center will showcase photographs on the plaza’s 18’ x 32’ digital wall.

“While the pandemic prevented us from hosting a traditional exhibition with an awards ceremony, our community partners have come together to help us honor our participants and their creative achievement,” said Carra Garza.

So, the next time you find yourself grabbing lunch on Houston St. or running along the river, look up and see what these bright and inspired students saw. In this time of uncertainty and anxiety, these photographs speak to the natural world’s resilience. It’s a positive message for all of us and it’s delivered by our youth. 

Just picture it.

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