By Christine Beebe
Karen Palmer first heard the whispers of her future calling on a beach near her home in Massachusetts, when her college marine biology teacher pointed out examples of how the earths environment was being damaged. My heart just opened up, and I wanted to help, she recalls.
A brief unplanned trip to the Santa Ynez Valley changed her life forever; Palmer says shell never forget her first time over Cold Springs Bridge on San Marcos Pass.
Even though Id never been here before, I felt I was home. Stunned by the Valleys glorious beauty she knew this was the place she wanted to be. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my whole life.
Once back home Palmer worked two jobs, while continuing college, and when shed saved enough money she moved to California. She was 21 years old.
People thought I was crazy— especially when I said I wanted to go into environmental law, she recalls.
Palmer moved into a cabin at the historic Trout Farm near Solvang, and took a volunteer job at the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, but quickly became frustrated working with adults who seemed to have the mentality that its hopeless. Next she tried the Peace Resource Center across town, teaching environmental awareness and conflict resolution.
But it was when she became a naturalist at Outdoor School at Lake Cachuma 10 years ago and found children who shared her enthusiasm, that Karen Palmer discovered the path to her future.
I found so many kids there who wanted to help the earth, she recalled. Inspired by working with these children, she began to visualize a way to reach more children—a lot more children—in their schools.
Palmer designed an educational ecology board game on paper, and named it Lets Save Our Earth. She hoped the game could show children how their choices are always either helping or hurting the earth.
The idea of an educational, rather than competitive, game appealed to Palmer, so she planned that the game would enable players to work as teams toanswer the games questions, rather than engage in strict competition with one another.
Then she thought up Schmutzies and Eco-Angel characters; a player who draws a Schmutzie card would learn about actions of everyday people that contribute to endangering the earth. An Eco-Angel card would ask questions about an environmental issue, and if a player answered correctly he would advance.
Earth Patrol and Angel Medicine cards would help players advance by giving environmental or self-esteem tips. The winner would be the player who first reached Eco-Angel headquarters where a healthy bunch of action-figure style teens live.
It was 1994 and Palmer had a clear concept and drawing board design. But she was unsure of what to do next. Coincidentally a friend who knew about her idea also knew Harry Kislevitz, the creator of Colorforms, a popular vinyl stick-on play set for children.
Palmer was introduced to Kislevitz took an interest in Palmers idea. He helped her develop a prototype of Lets Save Our Earth for his company. He then sent her to Toy Fair International in New York, as a Colorforms representative, to test the response of toy buyers to her game.
Palmer was ecstatic when toy buyers found the prototype for Lets Save Our Earth interesting enough to place advance orders. She returned to Colorforms, only to have her hopes dashed by company executives who told her the company was having organizational and financial problems and they would not be marketing her game.
Discouraged but unwilling to accept defeat, Palmer decided she would go it alone. I followed my heart. With the help of many people, doors opened for me, she explainsed.
She found investors—mostly friends, Who believed in me and loaned me the money to produce 2,500 games.
Palmer wanted her product to match her message, so she found a small company that used recycled paper and soy-based inks to manufacture Lets Save Our Earth.
This all started with just a thought, she says, and when all the games were finally here in my garage, I had physical proof that anybody who has a positive thought can make it happen. But, it had not all happened yet and serious obstacles lay ahead.
With games in hand and hope in her heart, she eagerly approached local schools to buy her game, only to be turned away.
They just werent interested, she recalls. They said they were too busy and didnt have a budget to buy games. Her investors were phoning, and she had no way to pay them back.
That was about seven years ago, she says, and it was the lowest time of my life.
In the end, it was Palmers own game that saved the day. Sorting through freshly printed Angel Medicine cards one afternoon, a sentence on one of the cards seemed to leap out to her. Any victory begins with an idea followed through, with persistence and patience, it read.
She realized she had momentarily lost sight of her own message. Her enthusiasm restored, she looked to the future and has never turned back. She knew that with persistence and patience she would find a way to get the 2,500 unused games out of her Solvang garage and into the schools.
Within a short time Palmer formed Eco-Angel Enterprises, a non-profit organization, that enabled her games to be purchased and donated to schools as tax write-offs. Then she made a website, and orders started trickling in.
She persuaded the Valley organizations Womens Environmental Watch, Lions Club, Kiwanis and others to underwrite her games, which gave the game added credibility. She gave her first board game presentations—first at Family School and then Los Olivos School. That opened a lot of doors, she recalls.
Feedback from the teachers and students was so positive, we continued having her come, said Anjanette Winckler, Vice Principal of Los Olivos School.
The word spread, and gradually, over the last few years, Palmers reputation began preceding her.
Teachers were calling to ask if I was coming to do my presentation — and to bring my game.
She now visits the Valleys elementary schools each Spring; she tells her story, talks to students about the environment and teaches them how to play her game. Whats nice is she leaves the games in the classrooms, and the teachers let students play throughout the year, as constant reminders of what they learned, Winckler says.
Solvang School fifth grade teacher Jennifer Pedersen, who has hosted Palmer the past two years, says Lets Save Our Earth fills a unique teaching niche. Shes found the perfect combination between fun and education, which is a real tricky thing to find. Pedersen says Its become a challenge for teachers to make learning enjoyable since the establishment of mandated standards for California schools. Were so pressured to teach these standards, she explains, we dont have time for fun things any more.
Coincidentally, Palmers game —designed over 10 years ago, teaches concepts aligned with new fifth grade science teaching standards.
After years of struggle to get her games accepted by the schools, Palmer now finds herself and her game in the delightful position of being in demand.
New doors opened for Palmer when SB 373 was passed in 2001. This law attempts to reduce the $175 million spent annually disposing trash generated at California public schools, and is known as the Diversion and Environmental Education Law. It not only requires 75% of California public schools to voluntarily reduce waste, it also requires schools to teach an environment-based education program.
Ron Vilarino, the Recycling Education Coordinator for Health Sanitation Service, whos been teaching recycling to Santa Barbara County students for ten years says Karen has a great idea with her game, and her timing is perfect. Her hands-on game for schools is in the forefront of whats now being required by law. Vilarino recently purchased 25 of her games with grant money he raised, for schools in the Valley, Lompoc and Santa Maria.
He also encouraged Palmer to expand her program. He told me I should do this for all of Santa Barbara County, she says.
These days Palmer is still thinking a lot about the future of her environmental work, but most of all she enjoys sharing her love of nature with her husband David and their eight-year-old daughter Marissa, a student at Solvang School.
David has been along through many of the ups and downs of his wifes struggle to bring her dream to life. My husband is my backbone, she says he has always kept unwavering faith in her ability to carry out her mission.
Marissa too is a big supporter of her mothers crusade. I think what my Mom does is very cool, because she helps kids understand why the earth is important to us.
Karen Palmers vision for the future includes a plan to promote her program to schools across the United States. I want to continue building a strong foundation here in the Valley, she says, so I have a proven track record when I start to go nationwide.
My dream is to create an Eco-Angel Headquarters, a camp where kids can come up from cities like Los Angeles and have an actual place to hike and see the beauty of nature and learn about the environment. City kids dont get to experience what we have here.
She also hopes to join the California Regional Environmental Education Community, a program of the California Department of Education created to improve the environmental literacy of students by linking teachers with environmental education providers.
Today the stack of 2,500 board games in her garage is considerably smaller. So far Palmer has sold over 600 games around the U.S. and to other countries including China and South Africa; some 150 games are currently in use throughout the Santa Ynez Valley — at schools, libraries, Girl Scout troop venues, after-school programs and in homes.
Encouraged by her success and energized by new ideas and dreams, Palmers mission grows stronger.
I believe Im a spokesperson for the earth—kind of like Dr. Seuss was when he wrote I speak for the trees in The Lorax, she says. The kids Ive taught in schools tell me what Im saying is important to them.
Ive never felt more purposeful in my whole life.
Copyright 2004, Inside Santa Ynez Valley Magazine, All Rights Reserved