Wendy Scherrer, Environmental Educator
by Kathryn Fentress
Wendy Scherrer, 64, has three adult children and three grandchildren. She is a 1976 Huxley College graduate who helped develop the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) and became its Executive Director in 1999. After earning her environmental planning degree in 1976, Wendy received a master’s in science education at Western Washington University in 1988. She joined fellow educators in 1990 to found the Environmental Education Association of Washington. She also helped start the North Cascades Institute’s school field-based environmental education and teacher training programs, including Mountain School. She helped plan NCI’s Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake and wrote curriculum guides for fourth through eighth grades, including Celebrating Wildflowers, Teaching for Wilderness, and Sharing the Skagit.
Kathryn Fentress: What brought you to Bellingham?
Wendy Scherrer: I came to attend Huxley College at Western. I began working on my degree in environmental planning in 1973. Early on I was inspired by my connection with the energies of the natural world. In the jobs that followed graduation I wanted to do something significant and help others to do the right things for the environment. When I started having kids, I went back to school for a master’s degree in science education. I knew teaching would give me more family time.
What was your favorite job?
Working for the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) program was my best job ever. I liked the small nature of the environmental nonprofit, as we worked to provide people a carrot, not a stick, to change their land use practices. NSEA was able to obtain local, state and federal grants that helped us restore salmon habitat. I liked that the work wasn’t political. I have relatives on both ends of the political spectrum and have experienced how much strife polarity can cause. To solve our communities’ problems, we need to build bridges with others with different perspectives; give people incentives, not hurdles.
I understand that you had a difficult time with cancer.
Yes, I was diagnosed with a rare type of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2005. I had chemo, radiation and in the middle of a stem cell transplant, I suffered a stroke. The stroke left me with some short-term memory deficits. I went back to work in 2006 but was unable to track information properly. I was evaluated by a neuropsychologist, applied for, and received disability. Then I asked myself, “What now?” I always have to do something.
I know you have been active with the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association, what has HVNA focused on?
I have lived in Happy Valley for 44 years and helped found the Association in 1976. I have been on the board ever since and was President for 10 years. The Padden Creek Daylighting project was one of our biggest projects, with over 25 years in planning and finally implementation in 2015. We have also engaged in street tree planting throughout the neighborhood annually and have successfully worked with the City Council to adopt an innovation Green Infrastructure Plan in Happy Valley. We hold monthly Southside Community Meals, a partnership with the local Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, free meals that are open to everyone. HVNA has an ad hoc committee that is currently focusing on affordable housing, working on a pilot project to allow for Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (D-ADUs) so that residents could add small cottages or apartments over garages next to their houses. One of the advantages of increasing density in certain areas is that the infrastructure is already in place.
This past January we received a $5,000 Project Neighborhood grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation — YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard). We produced an 11-minute video about Happy Valley and showed it at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center. I put together a Steering Committee including the Whatcom Association of Realtors, Building Industry Association, Kulshan Land Trust, LightSource Residential Design, city planners, developers, staff from Unity Care and neighbors to develop an agenda. We had an all-day workshop on April 29 and 90 people attended. We had two keynote speakers on the topic of adding density to some of our lots to meet greater housing needs.
Are you doing any teaching now?
I volunteer on the NSEA Education Committee, which reaches most of the fourth grade classes throughout the seven Whatcom County school districts. I also go into five elementary schools every year, from January – March for the Salmon in the Classroom Project. I work with each school to get permits from the Washington Department of Fish And Wildlife, and in January deliver 300 salmon eggs to the five cold-water aquariums. Each week I give a lesson to the kids about the salmon’s lifecycle, species, water quality, habitat needs, food chain, food webs, restoration, and stewardship. Students make weekly observations, from eggs to alevins to fry stages. At the end of March students release the salmon fry into creeks. We also bring in chum salmon carcasses to dissect in the classroom. The students really enjoy learning about the external and internal anatomy of the fish.
Have you connected with the Native Tribes in our area concerning the salmon?
When at NSEA, I worked with Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe staff on several salmon recovery projects in Whatcom County. I worked with the Nooksack Recovery Team to hold the Salmon Summit Conference every year. After retirement in 2007, I worked with Lummi carver Felix Solomon to fundraise and implement the installation of a large horizontal totem pole, “It’s Mine,” in the Bellingham International Airport. Every year I go to the Lummi Nation’s First Salmon Ceremony in May, an event that connects all generations to celebrate salmon.
Another education project was to work with the Whatcom County Library system to develop the “People of the Salish Sea,” a curriculum for third graders in Whatcom County. The state law requires that the history and customs of local tribes be taught in the public schools. The program consists of kits with three parts: One focuses on the hunting and fishing culture, the second on plants and shellfish, and the third focuses on the people. We developed videos and lesson plans, collected baskets, and had local Native carvers create miniature canoes and other cultural items of the Nooksack and Lummi people. I also worked as a consultant with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to develop the seventh grade online curriculum, “American Indian Responses to Environmental Problems.”
What do you do to keep your spirits up?
I attend church, work in my garden, walk with friends and my dog and talk with my friends. Nature has also been transformational for me, giving me healing energy. When I had my diagnosis of stage four cancer, I walked on the beach or in the forest every day for ten months during treatment. Fish and plants are special to me and I spend time with friends who love animals and plants. I also teach piano to seventeen little kids every week. This brings in a little extra money but, more importantly, the kids and I have a lot of fun being in the present and making beautiful sounds.
What message would like to share with our readers?
Listen to others. It is important to listen to people and not tell others what to think. People need to hear each other and be open to new ideas. Things are not black or white; there are many shades of gray. We need to be open to all points of view. We have to listen in order to find common ground and then work together to solve one thing at a time. More people from our country need to open to a more global, multicultural perspective. Listen to nature. If you take care of nature, it will take care of you.
Thank you so much Wendy for all you have done and are continuing to do for the environment and the people of our community
Happy Valley Neighborhood
It is a diverse neighborhood of over 6,000 residents, situated on the south side of Bellingham. Originally a farming community, Happy Valley now consists of a mixture of single-family homes and apartment buildings. The recently restored Padden Creek runs through Happy Valley toward the estuary near Harris Avenue in Fairhaven.
For Further Reading
• Happy Valley: Yes in My Backyard by Nolan McNalley, a video on the Happy Valley website or YouTube.
• “YIMBY in Happy Valley,” Tim Johnson, Cascadia Weekly, April 26, 2017, www.happyvalleyna.org
• “After 100 Years, Padden Creek May Again See Daylight,” Wendy Scherrer, Whatcom Watch, May 2001, http://www.whatcomwatch.org/old_issues/v10i5.html#story1
• “Daylighting Padden Creek: Breathing Life into an Urban Stream,” Wendy Scherrer, Whatcom Watch, September 2015, http://www.whatcomwatch.org/php/WW_open.php?id=1907
• “Padden Creek Update: Salmon Stream Sees Daylight After 120 Years,” Ron Kleinknecht; Whatcom Watch, March 2016, http://whatcomwatch.org/index.php/article/padden-creek-update-salmon-stream-sees-daylight-after-120-years/
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is in everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.