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Thanks for Giving: Missouri master naturalist teaches ‘nature deprived’ youth for fun

Thanks for Giving: Missouri master naturalist teaches ‘nature deprived’ youth for fun

From the Thanks for Giving: Stories of St. Louisans giving their time and talents series
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CHESTERFIELD — Growing up north of Chicago, Bob Virag and his five siblings needed more terrain to conquer. His father and grandfather, Hungarian immigrants, built a cabin on a lake in Wisconsin. His childhood summers were spent by the water.

A legacy of the experience is found today in the hundreds of hours Virag volunteers each year in the St. Louis area. The retiree mainly teaches “nature deprived” youths and does more than a fair share of wading through streams to monitor water quality.

He’s vice president of the Missouri Master Naturalist Great Rivers Chapter, essentially the Special Forces of nature educators. They team up with different organizations to be good stewards of the environment. Among about 100 volunteers, there are birders, arborists, geologists and native plants enthusiasts.

“Every aspect of life on Earth is represented in our chapter,” said Virag, 74, of Chesterfield. “The longer I am in this, the more I realize the less I know.”

For his part, he often teaches middle school students at Litzsinger Road Ecology Center in Ladue. He helps teach children how to fish at Forest Park with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Over the summer, he was part of an effort to teach 300 youths and adults how to kayak in West Alton with the Mississippi River Water Trail Association.

As part of the Missouri Stream Team, he studies the physical and chemical make up of urban storm water. That means getting out in places like Bonhomme Creek and Dardenne Creek dozens of times a year to take water samples, look for Mayfly nymphs and Caddis fly larvae.

“When we look at the critters in the creek, that is the canary in the coal mine,” he said.

In winter, they measure chlorides in streams to detect road salt contamination.

“We are always looking for an excuse to get out,” he said.

He most enjoys seeing children develop a sense of discovery — as they catch their first fish, find their first fossil, see their first butterfly. Things he used to do on the lake in Wisconsin.

Outdoor adventures are what led him to study biology at the University of Illinois.

“I really wanted to be a naturalist for the National Park Service,” he said. “I couldn’t raise a family with what they were paying.”

He ended up researching and developing medical devices for 48 years. He and his wife have three children and four grandchildren. In 2015, he started volunteering full time.

He said he’s been humbled by being around other master naturalists and the endless tasks of planting trees and hacking invasive honeysuckle away from native plants and grasses.

“I have come to the conclusion that there is no way I can make a substantial contribution to the environment by myself,” he said. “I am part of a team.”

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