Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

“Juaniiiiiiiiita!” Elsa Lopez grew up hearing people outside her door in East L.A. screaming for her mom, Juana Gutierrez, who organized Madres de East Los Angeles de Santa Isabel — a leading group in the environmental-justice movement that blocked the building of a prison, then an oil pipeline, a chroming plant and an incinerator — to help with a problem. “She always got involved even if it was just cooking for the school carnival,” says Lopez. “I was homeschooled in activism.”

She has put her homeschooling to work over the past six years to get a nature center for kids opened in East L.A. “One day I was at the community garden at Seventh and Mott. I met this volunteer, Melanie Ingalls, from Los Angeles Audubon Society. We were pulling weeds and talking about city kids who have never been off concrete. They get so excited in nature, asking questions like what kind of bird is that, what eats it and stuff like that.”

Their mission took flight after Lopez showed Ingalls the Ernest E. Debs regional park with its 200 acres of native-plant wilderness and 136 species of birds. Lopez cashed in her community chips with elected officials and city, state and federal agencies, while Ingalls brought in National Audubon Society big guns to make deals and raise money. Ten million dollars and six years later, the new Audubon Center at Debs Park (www.audubon opened last month with Lopez as the director. “There’s 50,000 school-age children within a two-mile radius of Debs Park. I want to strengthen the family unit through nature for those kids and have them learn that you have to be careful with nature. You can’t just take a lizard home in your pocket.”

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