Val Schroeder stands in the wooded entrance to her home on Camano Island on Tuesday. The Snohomish Conservation District is honoring Schroeder, who started the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Project on Camano Island, with its annual Lifetime Achievement Award for her work expanding awareness on the importance of creating a healthy environment for plants and wildlife in your own yard. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Conservation District honors environmental volunteers

CAMANO ISLAND — Val Schroeder turned her back yard into a paradise for wild creatures. She’s watched eagles perch in nearby trees and otters shimmy down the stairs from her yard to the beach.

In Lake Stevens, Terry Myer transformed her lawn into a garden that produces enough fruit and vegetables to stock the local food bank. She’s donated more than 2,000 pounds of produce this year. That includes 400 pounds of fresh tomatoes.

At Olivia Park Elementary School in South Everett, 8-year-old Jasmine Kraus leads a group called Nature Kids in a quest to clean up litter. Dalila Habul, 12, visits the elementary school after her middle school classes so she can help in the school garden.

The women and girls are among a dozen volunteers being recognized by the Snohomish Conservation District for their efforts to protect the environment.

Schroeder, 59, is receiving the organization’s annual Lifetime Achievement Award for “her incredible leadership and enthusiasm for training the next generation.”

She started the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Project on Camano Island in 2002. The goal is to help homeowners create sanctuaries in their yards by putting in native plants that provide food and shelter for animals. More than 860 yards have been completed on the island. It was the second community in the state and 10th in the nation to be formally recognized for the habitat work.

“You don’t have to be perfect to have a back yard wildlife habitat,” she said. “It makes you think about what you can do.”

She moved to Camano Island in 1994 and started volunteering with Friends of Camano Island Parks a year later.

Schroeder also teaches English at Stanwood High School. Most years, she gives students an assignment to perform community service projects for national Make A Difference Day. Last year, her class won $10,000 that the students chose to donate to the preservation of Barnum Point on Camano Island.

The award is an encouragement, Schroeder said.

“Sometimes I get tired and so things like this give me a boost to keep on trucking,” she said.

Myer, 39, is one of seven adults honored as a Conservation Leader of the Year. Jasmine and Dalila are two of the four young people celebrated as youth leaders.

A couple of years ago, Myer went to a conservation district class called Lawns to Lettuce. It gave her “an easy, excuse-free way to do things.”

“I challenged myself to do lawns to lettuce, but on a full scale,” she said. “The environmental problems we face in the world are so huge, and it can feel hopeless. I think the worst thing you can do is give people a problem with no hope. This is an easy solution and it’s something anybody can do.”

She started using recycled materials to create garden beds. She found that box springs are ideal for climbing plants and tires work well for raised beds. Local businesses gave her supplies.

She planted berries, apples, zucchini, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, carrots, onions, herbs, corn, cucumbers, beets, broccoli, kale and seven kinds of peppers. She weeds maybe 10 minutes a week.

She’s confident she can convince her husband to let her take over more of their property. She wants to double the size of her garden. She also is working on starting a large community garden at Eagle Ridge and a smaller one at the family center downtown.

When she needs help, she rallies volunteers and everyone goes home with produce.

“People got excited about what I was doing, so every Sunday for two hours people would come over in droves. They’d get a tour, I’d give them a handout,” she said. “They get a list of all of my resources.”

Sometimes, she leads specific projects. Earlier this year, people brought in apples from their trees and spices from their cabinets. Someone loaned them a press. They made 60 gallons of locally sourced, home-pressed apple cider. They donated it to the food bank.

“It’s a small thing, really, to give hope and energy, and it spreads to so many other places,” she said.

Dalila and Jasmine learned about protecting the environment at Olivia Park Elementary.

Dalila was in kindergarten when students reclaimed an overgrown patch of ground near the school and turned it into a learning garden. She helped with the garden all through elementary school. Now, the sixth-grader comes back to volunteer.

“When I was in maybe fourth grade, I realized that me and my friends, we are what the future is going to be,” she said. “And I realized that I want to show people who are younger than me, and even people who are older than me, that we can make a difference.”

She joined a group of students who gathered after school with their families. They’d stay until 7 p.m. They weeded and planted, putting in beans, carrots, kale and potatoes. Rhubarb always is popular in the fall. They had a lesson on how to make pie. They’ve also picked apples and made applesauce.

“It’s not just the environment, it’s showing what you can do,” Dalila said. “I’ve had kids come say they made pies with their mom and it was really good.”

She encourages people to start helping around their home or school. No one is too young, and no action is too small. Picking up a piece of trash on the sidewalk or planting flowers for honeybees are important contributions.

As for gardening, it might sound like a challenge, but digging in the dirt can become a haven in a hectic schedule.

“I have a lot of sports and school stuff going on around me, and a lot of people think of gardening as work,” Dalila said. “But for me, it’s just a time to breathe.”

Third-grader Jasmine leads the Nature Kids. They get together and “jot down ideas and see what’s best to do, like how to help the Earth,” she said.

They picked up garbage around the school. They kept track of what kind of litter they found. There were a lot of plastic bags and tissues or napkins, Jasmine said.

She’s proud and happy to receive the leadership award and wants to invite all the Nature Kids to come to the ceremony. She hopes others are inspired.

“The more people, the more better, because then we can help the whole Earth and someday the whole Earth will be clean,” she said.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439;

Better Grounds Awards

The Better Grounds Awards ceremony is free and open to the public. It starts at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Rosehill Community Center in Mukilteo. Register online at

Other winners

Conservation leaders of the year: Robbin Ballard, Libby Reed, Tristan Klesick, Greg Moga, David New, Gail Walters.

Youth conservation leaders: Rondi Nordal, Ben Rankin

Conservation business of the year: Boeing Corporation

Conservation partners: The Nature Conservancy, Ron Shultz with state Conservation Commission

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