Jefferson Award Winner Founded The Pollinator PosseBy Sharon Chin

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) It’s a muddy mess: kids mix soil with seeds from California native wildflowers. Tora Rocha says when the seed balls germinate, they’ll attract bees and butterflies like the milkweed-eating monarch.

“That’s the only plant that monarch caterpillars can eat. Did you know that?” Rocha asked 5-year-old volunteer Mylaya Lindsey.

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Lindsey replied, “No!”

The project at hand is the work of the Pollinator Posse, the 8-year-old nonprofit Rocha co-founded at Oakland’s Lake Merritt Gardens.

Volunteers teach children, gardeners, landscapers, and others to create pollinator-friendly spaces.

“It’s how we look at landscapes: how we do all our landscaping to be aesthetically pleasing to humans, not paying attention how everything we do in the landscape affects the local ecosystems,” Rocha explained.

By participating in the afternoon project, Lindsey learned she can make a difference.

“We’re trying to make plants grow and also more butterflies and bees,” she exclaimed.

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How the kids are going to get the seed balls into the ground speaks to Rocha’s creativity. At Lake Chabot Golf Course, children use golf clubs to whack the seed balls to outlying areas where volunteers hope the seeds will grow.

“You’re helping the earth, you’re helping the planet,” Rocha explained.

Besides planting Bay Area pollinator gardens, Rocha and her volunteers raise monarch caterpillars, and build “Air Bee and Bee” habitats to increase the numbers of California native bees which don’t live in hives.

Pollinator Posse co-founder Terry Smith says Rocha is a key reason why the nonprofit has bloomed to 650 members.

“She really makes connections between people and ideas that are magical,” said Smith. “It makes you want to join in the fun.”

Rocha also founded and organizes the Autumn Lights Festival, a three-night fundraiser at Lake Merritt Gardens.

And the nonprofit has created a buzz statewide: Rocha is getting more people from outside of the Bay Area asking her to demonstrate how to build pollinator-friendly gardens.

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So for increasing pollinators through education and landscaping, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Tora Rocha.