August 24, 2007

PROBEA: 15 Years of Bio-regional Environmental Education

By Michael Klam

At the heart of every nonprofit ecological organization, there is always a dreamer. But it takes more than ideas and passion to realize the dream. Business savvy, practicality, the ability to balance the books and get things done are just as important as carrying out ecological projects and galvanizing people for a cause.

Doretta Winkelman, Binational Education Director, and Karen Levy-Szpiro, Binational Education Program Manager.

Doretta Winkelman, a dreamer with a head for business, co-founded the PROBEA project in 1991 with her partners Merle Okino O’Neill and Suzanne Brown. Winkelman now serves as director of binational education for the San Diego Natural History Museum, and PROBEA has its offices there in the museum in Balboa Park.

Collaborator and current PROBEA instructor Judy Ramirez joined the team early on. Under the motto, “Neighboring communities in harmony with nature through environmental education,” the project created a partnership with 10 organizations, half from the United States and the other half from Mexico.

Collaborators Dolores Monterrubio of Sistemas Bilingües Especializados and Laura Silvan of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental played essential roles in bringing the program to life in Mexico.

PROBEA — Proyecto Bio-regional de Educación Ambiental, or Bio-regional Environmental Education Project — set out to train educators to teach ecology along the Baja California Peninsula and across the Sea of Cortez.

In the last 15 years, the project has nurtured budding environmentalists and activists in 24 cities from San Diego/Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas and from Mazatlan to Mexicali. More than 3,300 educators have participated in PROBEA programs over the last decade. The teachers, in turn, have reached over 90,000 students at 800 schools and organizations. More than 18,200 individuals have participated in PROBEA trainings and community events.

With the goal of creating “an environmentally literate citizenry working together to improve the quality of life in their communities,” PROBEA’s promotoras (community volunteers) and program graduates have planted gardens, organized neighborhood and beach cleanups, initiated recycling programs for product containers and batteries, reduced trash, composted with worms, and most importantly, have made ecological sustainability a common goal.

“We have been able to create awareness in Baja California,” Winkelman said. “And this has led to the development of skills which have created positive changes in the environment.”

PROBEA’s list of collaborators, funders and supporters has grown to more than 200 individuals and organizations on both sides of the border, including Fundación La Puerta, Fundación Esperanza de México, Los Niños, Ecoparque, Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, Ecology Project International, Quantum Leaning Mexico, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Division of International Conservation), Hermosa Beach Sister City Association, Telmex, Wyland Foundation, Pro Peninsula, Los Cabos Municipal Government and Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve.

In December 2006, educators on the Mexico side facilitated trainings in La Paz. With guidance from PROBEA Program Manager Karen Levy-Szpiro, instructors Ana Karina Pelaez, Luz Macrina Guerrero and lead instructor Araceli Fernandez piloted the project’s new curriculum, Our Natural Heritage, Pride of Baja California Sur.

Yet with enough work for a brigade of go-getters, PROBEA’s current core team on the U.S. side is made up of only three individuals, Winkelman, Ramirez and Levy-Szpiro.

“We plan to secure funding to hire people because basically three do the work of 10,” said Levy-Szpiro, who coordinates projects, teaches, creates curricula, does translations and foments collaborations with people in Mexico.

“One day I could be planting a garden in Tijuana and the next talking to the secretary of tourism to establish a relationship,” she said.

Ramirez facilitates teacher and community volunteer workshops and community-based environmental education projects, designs curricula — she co-authored The Making of a Naturalist/El Joven Naturalista, a bilingual curriculum presenting basic ecology principles and guided field experiences – and serves as project evaluation lead.

“The better the work we do, the more in demand we are,” said Winkelman, who has managed to keep the organization in the black since the beginning. “We are constantly faced with the challenge of raising all of our own funds — constantly looking for money and constantly doing programs — both are full-time jobs,” she said.

The PROBEA team would like to receive more private or governmental funding and support from Mexico. “Most of our funding comes from the United States, but 90 percent of the benefits go to Mexico,” Levy-Szpiro said.

Working in Mexico also has its inherent challenges. From transporting materials and long waits at the border to communication issues and difficulties in fundraising, the group has their work cut out for them.

“We do not have tax-exempt status in Mexico,” Winkelman said. The process can take up to two years of unexpected expenses and prolonged bureaucracy. As it stands now, PROBEA would have to pay 30 percent to 40 percent of funding generated in Mexico back to the Mexican government, she said.

But despite the workload and the challenges, the three cohorts never lose sight of the dream.

“Working in Mexico is very challenging, especially when working with government ministers and secretaries, but it’s also rewarding because teachers are hungry for training,” explained Levy-Szpiro.

The project received praise and the promise to carry on from the teachers of El Sistema Educativo Estatal y la Zona XCIC de Colegios Particulares:

“Por las 14 horas más provechosas que hemos vivido en los últimos días especialmente por contagiar o ‘contaminar’ nuestra alma y espíritu de su inagotable amor y entusiasmo por la educación ambiental que hoy adquiere su verdadero sentido en nuestras conciencias. Refrendamos el compromiso de dar nuestro 100 por ciento para que éste llegue intacto a nuestros alumnos”.

This fall, with funding and support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, PROBEA will offer a “diplomado,” a 180-hour teacher certificate course in environmental education. The diplomado will include Oceanside-based Quantum Learning Network’s cutting-edge strategies to help teachers create meaningful, participatory lessons.

Winkelman sees the future success of the program in its emerging teachers and collaborators. “My goal for PROBEA is that I would like it to be self-sustaining, whether we are here or not,” she said. “A lot more organizations are doing things that they weren’t doing 15 years ago.”

To find out more about PROBEA and to get involved, visit or call (619) 255-0184.

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