San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy seeks more docents to share programs


By Kristina Houck

When Norma and Steve Chodos retired and relocated to Solana Beach from Los Angeles four years ago, it didn’t take them long to get involved in the community. With their new home overlooking San Elijo Lagoon, the couple applied to be docents to learn more about what’s beyond their backyard.

“We knew nothing about the lagoon,” Norma Chodos said.

“We were curious,” added Steve Chodos.

Today, the duo co-lead walks through San Elijo Lagoon, nearly 1,000 acres of coastal wetlands between Encinitas and Solana Beach, extending inland from Pacific Coast Highway to Rancho Santa Fe.

Norma, a retired English teacher, and Steve, a retired physicist, lean on each other’s strengths to teach children on field trips.

“Steve has a Ph.D. in physics, so he usually handles the harder parts of the tours. Being an English major, I handle the descriptive beauty of what we’re seeing,” said Norma Chodos with a laugh. “It’s a good balance.”

“She’s better at controlling the class,” added Steve Chodos, as he smiled at his wife of almost 47 years.

Launched in 1995, the docent program is funded by San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation, interpretation and public enjoyment of San Elijo Lagoon.

The nonprofit has 40 docents, including Carmel Valley resident Sally Stoffel, a two-year volunteer.

Stoffel decided to volunteer at the lagoon after retiring from UC San Diego, where she worked for 35 years.

“With raising kids and working, I never really had time to learn about what was around me,” said Stoffel, who has lived in Carmel Valley for 12 years and previously lived near the lagoon in Solana Beach for 27 years.

“We would hike the lagoon, but I didn’t know about the birds and the plants. The training is just a really fun class. I took it a second year to learn even more.”

The eight-week training course covers the history and ecology of San Elijo Lagoon. Docent training also offers practical interpretive techniques and tips on how to lead groups of students and adults.

“Now we keep a pair of binoculars nearby, and we can easily identify many of the plants and birds in the lagoon,” said Norma Chodos. “This has opened up a whole new world for us.”

About 4,000 students and adults of all ages visited San Elijo Lagoon last year to participate in school and public programs, which include academic field trips, family days and nature walks.

The San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy is recruiting new volunteers to lead guided walks and field trips, and help raise awareness about the wetlands. There are 15 openings for docents.

The Chodos and Stoffel encouraged those interested in volunteering to apply online at

“It’s important to teach the kids,” said Norma Chodos. “Maybe they’ll go home and teach their parents, and they’ll become more aware of how important it is to keep the wetlands. It opens their eyes to nature.”

“It’s very rewarding,” added Stoffel. “You get as much out of it as you give.”

Training is held 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday mornings, as well as two Saturday mornings, Sept. 30 through Dec. 2 at San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center, 2710 Manchester Ave., Cardiff-by-the-Sea.

For details, call 760-436-3944, ext. 702, or visit