Building community: Sama Wareh on co-leading Art and Wilderness InstituteEducator Highlights . Resources
In our Educator Highlights, we share ideas, celebrate change makers, and chat with educators who inspire us. This year, we’re celebrating Sama Wareh, a naturalist and program co-founder of the Art and Wilderness Institute based in Orange County, California. Sama Wareh nurtures an eco-conscious community of learners in Orange County and is the sixth educator featured in our series.
We are grateful that Sama shared her time and expertise with us, as well as her teaching philosophy that is grounded by genuine enthusiasm for natural phenomena and beauty.
Read this interview and at the end, learn how you can connect with Sama.
Sama always wanted to work with animals–admiring plants was new
The road to “naturalist life” is different for everyone. For Sama, in her undergraduate years, she imagined a life working in film and educational nature programs. She also had an art minor. “With that combination, when I graduated, I remember asking myself… ‘now what?’” Sama laughs and adds, “I always wanted to work with animals. That was the through line for me.”
When she saw a job posting for an Animal Caretaker at the Orange County Department of Education, Sama jumped at the opportunity, which then blossomed into her dream job of a naturalist position.
“At the time, I had never heard the word ‘naturalist’ in my life but based on the job description, I knew this was my calling.” On her first day of the job at Inside the Outdoors at Irvine Regional Park, Sama knew she wanted to do this forever. But her connection to nature as a source of healing goes further back.
“My Uncle in Syria was a healer. I remember walking into his house, as a young adult, and being amazed at all the plants in the house. One day, when I had a bad cyst in my eye and he took white sage, boiled it, let it cool, and soaked a towel with the sage-infused water. It totally healed my irritated eye. Up until that moment, I loved animals but I thought plants were boring. He changed that.”
On her first day of work at Irvine Regional Park, Sama remembers helping her supervisor Janine set up a “native plants with healing properties” walk, for their upcoming group. “And Janine says, go put this ID by that plant over there, and sure enough, what’s the card she handed me? White sage.” That was the moment everything clicked for Sama.
“I felt like God planted me somewhere and this is where I was meant to be.” –Sama Wareh
Since then, Sama has led over 1,000 educational hikes for people of all ages, and in 2022, Art and Wilderness Institute served over 430 students, 2,000 community members, and 260 families.
“If we’re not connected to nature, deeply and truly, then we can’t conserve it,” Sama shares
At a campout with two close friends and colleagues, Sama realized that together, they could do more and reach a wider group of learners. In 2019, with the dream team of Dr. Khadeeja Abdullah, who also teaches environmental justice, and Syma Aslam, who has a background in psychology and social behavior, the three women began Art and Wilderness Institute (AWI).
“Our classes are not teaching religion, but a big majority of our demographic is Muslim,” Sama shares. “As a Muslim, I believe we are stewards of the earth. And so many people who are Muslim or from immigrant communities do not have those vital experiences of feeling safe in nature. This is a big problem, because as communities, if we’re not connected to nature, deeply and truly, then we can’t conserve it.”
With this grounding, Sama tries to tie everything together holistically. “Our motto is ‘explore, create, connect, grow,’ because those are the steps.” She explains how students have to explore first to develop that innate curiosity.
“Then, we help them create something, maybe an art piece, plant medicine, a poem, or even a butterfly garden.” After that stage, lessons offer a reflection so students can connect and synthesize material on a deeper level.
Sama and co-leaders at AWI model eco-conscious thinking and behavior
“We try to be eco-conscious when we run any program,” Sama expresses toward the middle of our conversation. The team finds materials at garage sales and purchases materials second-hand, when possible. Occasionally, parents with children in the program will donate unused materials too.
Suhana Shereef is a full-time volunteer who helps organize student-led clubs and sustainability initiatives. “AWI is more of a platform for anyone to form a new club, so students often take their idea and run with it,” Sama says. “We recently had a student express concern at the styrofoam utensils used at their mosque. So in 2022, they began the Green Masjid Initiative. Now they have 14 mosques committed to going green.
“We’re talking about a transformation here, with local mosques and Ramadan Potlucks going from ‘styrofoam everywhere’ and ‘trash overflowing’ to people beginning to only bring reusable utensils and water bottles.”
Recently, the Flora and Fauna Club, run by two 12-year-old mentorship students, raised $2,500 for a butterfly garden. Now, a thriving butterfly garden offers native habitat and host plants–as well as beauty and an educational ‘demo garden’ for the wider community to see. After that initiative, the mayor of Yorba Linda was so impressed and wanted to take clearer steps to help the city be more green.
“We operate from a mindset of ‘How can we help you? What do you need from us?’ and that seems to work well for making sustained changes.”
To date, AWI has worked with over 18 Islamic centers in southern California.
What’s in Sama’s backpack: 10 must-have resources for any hike or activity
Sama takes her backpack on all AWI excursions, no matter how short or long the hike is. “I would add Nature Trading Cards to this list, but all my students collect them. So I can count on them to bring their own,” Sama says with a laugh.
Sama designed these fun nature trading cards herself and with this resource, kids and adults get excited talking about California Plants and Animals. The educator bulk sets are a convenient way for schools and nature centers to enrich each student’s connection to the natural world, both in the classroom and on the trail.
“My backpack is a curated art piece,” Sama expresses. “And my nickname is Mary Poppins– I tend to have the thing we need just at that moment.”
Here is what Sama always has in her backpack:
- 1 sharpie
- 1 knife
- 1 water bottle canteen
- 1 coffee canteen
- 1 First Aid Kit (that includes a needle and a lighter)
- Duct tape
- 1 sketchbook
- 2 interchangeable art kits
- a bird and wildflower guide
- 1-2 monoculars
- 1 sweatshirt.
“For the First Aid Kit, make sure Band-Aids are the easiest to access, and also, for duct tape, you can wrap it around pencils to take smaller amounts with you.” Sama fills the canteen with hot water on cold, winter days. Students know to bring their mugs with them and sometimes they get a hot chocolate surprise on the trail.
“It’s those little things that can make an experience extra special,” Sama reflects.
“You know,” Sam shares toward the end of our conversation, “AWI is what it is today not because of me, but because God has blessed me with supportive parents, amazing women around me, altruistic and humble co-founders, super awesome teachers, and a loving community. It takes a village to raise a village.”
Join the growing AWI community and connect with Sama
We’re so grateful to Sama for her time to share her philosophy, tips, and passion with us. To learn more, visit their homepage and click Enroll for more details. You can also follow them on Instagram @artandwilderness_institute. Sama is also the camp director for the John Muir Association this July, which you can learn more about here.
The AWI community is accepting registrations for Summer Camp and also hiring staff for fall. Additionally, AWI is still hiring a couple more spots for summer staff and also looking for a sponsored space they can use as an office. For direct inquiries, you can also contact [email protected] or give the AWI team a call at (909) 206-2226.
Thank you to Sama for being an outstanding member of the environmental education community. For more articles like this one, explore our ongoing series of Educator Highlights.