By Dottie Head
Sometimes you meet someone who just makes you say “wow!” That was my reaction when meeting Isabella Asztalos, from Norcross. A 13-year-old, home schooled 8th grader and two-year participant in the Atlanta Urban Ecologists (AUE) program, Isabella’s resume is impressive. What’s more impressive is her knowledge of and compassion for the natural world (especially birds!). Young people, like Isabella, give me hope for our future.
Isabella was part of AUE during the 2017-18 school year. She enjoyed it so much that she signed up again for 2018-19. If you’re not familiar with the program, AUE is an 8-month program offered by Atlanta Audubon, Blue Heron Nature Preserve and The Amphibian Foundation. These groups, along with other sponsors, collaborate to offer students in grades 8 through 12 an exciting glimpse into the world of wildlife conservation. By visiting different venues in the metro area, participants gain a diversity of experiences that include going behind the scenes at Zoo Atlanta, banding wild birds, and exploring Arabia Mountain's rich ecological systems. Each session is led by professionals who facilitate the learning and expose students to a variety of conservation and environment-based career pathways.
Isabella was fortunate to connect with Tixie Fowler, though Tixie argues it’s the other way around. Regardless, Tixie and Isabella were neighbors living within easy walking distance of Johnson Dean Forest, a small remnant pocket of forest located near bustling downtown Norcross. Joining them on a recent chilly morning walk through the forest, the camaraderie between the two was evident.
Tixie is the Executive Director of Gardens for Growing Community, a non-profit dedicated to connecting youth and nature. Despite the age difference, Tixie and Isabella hit it right off, and Isabella became Tixie’s “right hand helper” for many of the local workshops and community presentations that she organizes. “Isabella has always been very willing to jump in and help with all the details that go into setting up and running our conservation workshops,” says Tixie. “She also is an avid and hungry learner, and even when the content was on an adult level, she would sit patiently and fully engaged, soaking up every word. Her love for birds and her ability to identify them by song as well as shape and color totally amazes me–I wasn't a birder before I met Isabella, but she opened that world up to me.”
As an environmental educator, Tixie is actively involved in organizing community outreach activities, workshops and presentations. Isabella was usually seen at her side helping set up and manage events. They partnered with the Atlanta Coyote Project in an effort to calm their neighbors' fears about urban coyotes. Isabella helped the Norcross Garden Club conduct a “Bats as Pollinators” workshop and was a huge help at the club's annual plant sales. She also provided Tixie with valued insight into making activities more interesting for kids.
“Isabella was my assistant with the Kids in Conservation summer workshops during which youth spent the day outside exploring the forest learning about various areas of conservation, sort of a mini, localized AUE,” says Tixie. “If anything was boring or confusing, she would suggest ideas on how to make it better for kids.”
“She was also a great help with the other younger participants,” continues Tixie. “Although Isabella doesn't generally talk a lot, when the subject is about birds, wild animals and nature, her whole face lights up, and both kids and adults listen very respectfully to what she has to say. And the AUE instructors love her because she asks great questions!”
Isabella and Tixie are both active with the Friends of Johnson Dean Forest, a group of local conservation-minded volunteers who created and continue to maintain the trails and nurture natural habitat within the 11-acre city preserve. This work, inspired further by what she learned in the Kids in Conservation workshops, motivated Isabella to solicit the Norcross City Council last fall for a mayoral proclamation formally recognizing Johnson Dean as a valuable community asset. She also asked them to commit the funds needed for signage that would designate the preserve as an Atlanta Audubon Certified Wildlife Sanctuary. Isabella was assisted by 7-year-old Abby Maguire, another nature enthusiast she met in the Kids in Conservation workshops.
For their presentation to the City Council, Isabella and Abby laid out Audubon's requirements for certification Wildlife Sanctuary and explained why protecting native birds and plants is important. They engaged (and in some cases stumped) Council by asking several questions such as “what are the four things that wildlife need to survive and thrive?” and “why are birds important?” Taking the request very seriously, Council members asked the two girls several questions in return, and were impressed by their thoughtful and knowledgeable answers.
“After much discussion about protecting native birds and plants, the Mayor asked the girls to name their favorite bird,” recounts Tixie. “Abby instantly replied ‘the flamingo’, which cracked everyone up and basically sealed the deal on the decision to support the girls’ request.”
Fast forward to fall, when Atlanta Audubon certifiers visited the property and, agreeing with the young girls' assessment, officially certified it as an Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. By this time, Isabella had been invited to serve on Sustainable Norcross' Bee City USA Committee, and asked to help develop a Youth Advisory Committee for the Sustainable Norcross team. Keep in mind, Isabella IS ONLY 13 YEARS OLD!
Unfortunately, Isabella is unable to continue these commitments because her father accepted a new position in south Florida, and Isabella's family relocated just before the first of the year. This ended her involvement with the City of Norcross and broke Tixie’s heart in the process.
“She was my nature buddy—I feel like an essential part of me is missing,” says Tixie. “But her mother recently sent me a video showing the siblings playing in the new pool, while Isabella was totally absorbed in exploring their new backyard and making some well-thought out decisions about where to hang her bird feeders. She truly and deeply loves wild things.”
While we’re all sad to see Isabella move to Florida, we can only imagine what conservation issues she will find to get involved with in her new home. Tixie assures me that they are keeping in touch, and that she will send us updates.
In the meantime, Tixie is helping Isabella sell her bird-themed note cards back here in Atlanta (did I mention that Isabella is also an accomplished artist?) The cards are available in the Atlanta Audubon store, with proceeds split between helping Isabella keep her birdfeeders full of tasty seeds and suet and supporting the Atlanta Audubon programs that have given Isabella the confidence and resources to make a difference in wildlife conservation. You may purchase sets of Isabella’s notecards in the Atlanta Audubon online store.