The first time Maggie Eisenberger met Rachel Crandell, Crandell was wearing a safari outfit and had a cockatoo on her head in a St. Louis Montessori school.
“She was presenting these slides about the rainforest to my students, and I was hooked,” says Eisenberger, nowadays the chairman of the nonprofit today known as Friends of the Rainforest’s board of directors. “I went home that night and told my husband about it. My co-teacher, who connected me with Rachel, brought me a Christian Science Monitor that had an ad for a trip to [the Central American nation of] Belize with Save the Rainforest. I went, so you could say that presentation changed my life.”
That was the fall of 1989, a year after Crandell – with her husband, Dwight, a fellow St. Louisan – visited the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, Costa Rica’s largest private land reserve. Crandell was a second-grade teacher at a local school, and her husband served as executive director of the Saint Louis Science Center.
During that first visit to Costa Rica’s rainforests, the couple was inspired to make a difference because of a story they heard while visiting: A group of Swedish second-graders had worked to purchase land and protect the rainforest’s fragile and diverse ecology by founding and creating the Children’s Eternal Rainforest.
When she and her husband returned home to St. Louis, Crandell began recruiting her own second-graders for letter-writing campaigns focused on rainforest conservation efforts. The Crandells also started raising money and buying land. Eventually, in 2002, they started the nonprofit Monteverde Conservation League U.S., a civil organization dedicated to supporting Costa Rica’s rainforest conservation efforts.
“She and Dwight would travel to rainforests, and on her breaks from teaching, Rachel lived in Panama and Belize,” says Melissa Hoener, development coordinator at Friends of the Rainforest. “She lived with Mayan tribes and Emberá indigenous groups to learn their ways of protecting the land. She wrote books about what she saw that were meant for the children she taught.”
In 2008, Crandell’s husband passed away, and she followed the next year. But their vision of promoting and protecting the rainforest lived on. The Crandells’ Monteverde Conservation League U.S. underwent a name change to Friends of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in 2012, finally becoming Friends of the Rainforest in 2014. “We have three pieces of our mission: education, curriculum and awarding grants,” Hoener says. “Since 2013, we’ve awarded over $375,000 for either expanding the rainforest through land acquisition or awarding grants that help support those patrolling the rainforest 24 hours a day and have granted over $1 million since 2002.”
Large portions of the organization’s funds are focused on the Crandells’ first love, the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in Costa Rica. However, it also supports several organizations both inside and outside Costa Rica that are directly working toward the preservation and expansion of the rainforest. But like the Crandells’ own passion, the core of the nonprofit’s mission remains education. Locally, Friends of the Rainforest has partnered with Eureka’s Rockwood School District to make interactive, engaging presentations about the rainforest to students directly.
“We want to have a stronger foothold in St. Louis,” says Chelsea Raiche, executive director of Friends of the Rainforest. “We want people to know that St. Louis is connected to the rainforest, but we want to be known across the nation just for the work we do. When you think of the Red Cross, you don’t think of where they’re based – you think of their work. We want to be a national helper with a global impact.”
In addition to local classroom visits and lessons taught by the Friends of the Rainforest’s education and outreach coordinator, the nonprofit has developed lesson plans for any teacher, anywhere in the world. Designed to seamlessly supplement any major learning objective, the free curriculum has been downloaded by teachers in Bangkok, London, Hawaii and more, Raiche says.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to win this fight – I’m not so naive that the rainforest will be protected, and I won’t have a job anymore,” she says. “Every generation has to be told that the rainforest is important. As Americans, we’ve become so removed [from the rest of the world]. But when you put a child in the rainforest, they have a lifelong connection to the forest. They can still see the wonder of it, and that impacts the choices they make.”
Friends of the Rainforest coordinates ecotours for school groups to visit the rainforest, with all money going directly to support Costa Rica. The hands-on experience changes lives and minds, Eisenberger says. And she would know – since 1990, she has visited the rainforest more than 30 times and has led 500 people on trips through the forest, give or take.
“Going up and down a hill 100 meters in Costa Rica, the plants you see are 90 percent different than the plants you saw at the beginning of your walk,” Eisenberger says. “The joy of being there is why I love the rainforest, but the drive to share the information and to educate others comes from the threat.
“Rachel’s drive was even more layered because she also had a passion for the indigenous people. She felt very strongly that it all should be protected, and I know she’d be really thrilled at the number of people we’re reaching and the impact we’ve had.”
Friends of the Rainforest, 1324 Clarkson Clayton Center, No. 312, St. Louis, 314-941-1257, friendsoftherainforest.org