When, in 2001, Gary Poe established Windows-On-Our-Waters, a nonprofit educational organization based in Santa Monica, he had a clear goal in mind — to help reduce “non-point source” pollution by motivating young people to become environmental stewards.

Non-point source (NPS) pollution is pollution that doesn’t come from a single source or “point.” Unlike pollution from industrial and sewage treatment plants, it comes from many diffuse sources, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“NPS pollution is caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground,” says the Environmental Protection Agency. “As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and even our underground sources of drinking water.”

Underwater plants and aquatic animals are threatened by this pollution, whose effects can be difficult to notice.

“A lot of people don’t realize the trash goes from the street to the ocean,” said Poe. “And, a lot of people, when they realize that, change their behavior. And that will lead to a reduction of the amount of trash getting into the ocean.”

Since 2002, Poe has been traveling to schools around California with his Windows-On-Our-Waters TidePool Cruiser, a 16-foot trailer consisting of four hands-on, interactive and educational exhibits.

The exhibits include a view of a storm drain and The Examination Station, where youngsters can get a close-up view of preserved specimens of marine creatures.

The TidePool Cruiser also includes a “general store of the sea,” where shelves are stocked with everyday items having an “ocean connection,” including Post-it notes, because they contain seaweed, and a 45-gallon salt-water “touch tank,” where living sea stars, sea urchins, marine snails and other animals that are affected by pollutants entering the ecosystem are on display.

“I have the same animals in the TidePool Cruiser since I started, so I’m kind of proud of that,” Poe said. “I try to impact as few individual animals as possible.”

With the TidePool Cruiser in tow, Poe has been all around Southern California, from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border, educating children and the general public about how they can help keep the ocean clean, and providing tools and resources they can use to do so.

“It’s a one-man show,” said Poe, who educates the students himself.

“He [Poe] is fantastic,” said Jill Gravender, treasurer of the Windows-On-Our-Waters board of directors and director of water programs at Environment Now in Santa Monica. “He is one of the most passionate and articulate and funny teachers.

“He is really a great representative of the environmental community and is able to instill enthusiasm in others for caring for the ocean.”

To date, Poe says he has educated over 36,000 students through his program — one classroom at a time — and 750,000 members of the public have also had the chance to participate.

“These kids are so hungry for this information,” Poe said. “And they’re so excited to touch a sea star.”

Poe, who focuses on educating elementary school students, since “they’ll learn and carry it on throughout their adult lives,” said he has been to almost all of the schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu district.

And he has gotten lots of praise, including from Juliann Brown, a first-grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School, who called his program “entertaining and very educational.”

“My students are still talking about it all,” she said.

Miriam Hopkins, a first- and second-grade teacher at Grant Elementary School, called the program “a wonderful opportunity for all my students.”

“It’s a very hands-on program,” said Poe. “We want the kids to be motivated to become environmental stewards. We teach them that they can help clean up their ocean without even going to the ocean.

“If they’re picking up trash at their school, then that trash is not going into our storm drain system and isn’t being taken directly to the ocean. Just by putting trash in a trash can and recycling, these kids can help.”

“It is such a unique, hands-on and exciting learning opportunity for children,” said Gravender. “This program is one that teaches children that they shouldn’t throw trash into the street, because the trash is going to get captured in the storm drain and eventually get flushed out into the ocean. All of us can learn and be reminded of our impact.”

Gravender points out that the schools that get a visit from Poe and his TidePool Cruiser don’t actually pay for it, even though it costs about $1,000 per visit. The program is funded by contributions, private donors, foundations and grants, and Windows-On-Our-Waters is always looking for new funding sources.

“It’s difficult to receive outside funding, even though this is a tremendous value of service,” Gravender said.

But the funding challenges won’t stop Poe and his TidePool Cruiser, or the Windows-On-Our-Waters board of directors, from achieving their goal.

“We’re devoted to making this a success,” said Gravender.

Information, www.windows onourwaters.org

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