Students from John Muir Elementary School participate in a 'Fatal Foods Relay\

SM BEACH — Forty screaming fourth graders, imitating everything from a great white shark to an octopus, raced across the sand at Muscle Beach next to the Santa Monica Pier.

Flinging themselves at the feet of Heal the Bay volunteers, they tore open pouches containing food — animal figurines — or trash. The kids who found animals hurried back to their waiting classmates, while those with the not-so-tasty trash headed to the temporary animal hospital for a checkup.

The “Fatal Food Relay” was just one of the many activities aimed at teaching kids about keeping the oceans clean at Heal the Bay’s Education Day on Friday. The event hosted more than 700 third, fourth and fifth graders from L.A. County Title 1 schools and helped kick-off California’s Coastal Cleanup Weekend.

“I was excited to be out here because it’s a lot of fun working together as a team to clean up the beach for the environment,” Christopher Jackson, a third grader at Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists, said.

Jackson and his classmates had just finished picking up trash along the sand and waterfront. Despite the smoking ban on Santa Monica beaches, the kids found mostly cigarette butts, along with bottle caps, pieces of plastic and even baby diapers.

After the cleanup, the students toured the Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, interacting with sea life and playing games to learn about why it’s important to protect the marine environment.

“We’ve been learning a lot about what happens to the environment when you pollute it and what a carbon footprint is,” Laurel Henry, a Wisdom Academy third-grade teacher, said. “The kids are just so excited.”

For some students, Education Day was their first time visiting the beach. Yet for locals, like the students from John Muir Elementary School, it was just another chance to have fun and help out.

“I do the beach cleanup every year,” Riley Engels, a John Muir fourth grader said. “It’s like ‘Friends for Change’ on the Disney Channel where they have to save the beach … . It’s like I’m going to be a part of that.”

Engels was taking a break before searching for sand crabs with sieves near the waterfront. Members of Key to the Sea, an environmental education program run by Heal the Bay, taught the students about sea creatures and how they survive.

“It’s such a great thing for the school and the community to be a part of,” Elizabeth Gutterrez, the mother of a John Muir student, said as she watched the kids. “It’s our responsibility as adults to expose our kids to these types of things.”

Heal the Bay’s president, Mark Gold, expressed similar feelings. As a dad, Gold can remember bringing his kids to beach cleanups to show them the importance of protecting the environment. Teaching kids about these issues was where the idea for Education Day came from, Gold said.

“It’s one of the most fun and rewarding days,” Gold said. “The kids really get into it.”

Gold, along with other members of Heal the Bay, also mentioned that it is one of the only times that everyone on their staff gets to work together in the same place.

This weekend, they will be scattered all across L.A. County for Coastal Cleanup Day. It is Heal the Bay’s 20th year organizing the event, which continues to grow in size. This year, at least 12,000 volunteers will be working at 70 different sites to clean up the area’s beaches and waterways. Since 1990, volunteers have collected over a million pounds of debris.

“Everything’s not just about the beach,” Gold said, explaining how some of the most polluted places are inland. In fact, this year’s cleanup list of the most debris-impacted waterways includes places such as the L.A. River at Elysian Park and Taylor Yard.

“When it rains, it all goes straight into the ocean,” Gold said.

Education Day participants learned about the process as they viewed a picture of the different ways pollution can end up in the ocean.

“The kids get it,” Karin Hall, Heal the Bay’s executive director, said. “As they came from the buses down to the beach, they started picking up trash. They’ll go back to their neighborhoods and schools and do the same thing.”

And thanks to Education Day, the kids know that spreading the word about protecting the environment can make a difference.

“When you clean up, you help out the environment, and when you get a lot of people to join, you help the environment even more,” Jackson said.

To join find a cleanup site near you, visit www.healthebay.org for registration and parking information.

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