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Airman shares environmental passion, leads conservation project

Airman 1st Class Genesaret Balladares,154th Security Forces Squadron member, leads a team of volunteers during a conservation project event June 8, 2021, on Mount Kaala, Hawaii. Balladares set up a collaboration between her unit and the Army Natural Resource Program, Ohau, during a project to protect native species. The goal of the program is to effectively balance the requirements of the Army's training mission with its natural resource responsibilities. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. John Linzmeier)

Airman 1st Class Genesaret Balladares,154th Security Forces Squadron member, leads a team of volunteers during a conservation project event June 8, 2021, on Mount Kaala, Hawaii. Balladares set up a collaboration between her unit and the Army Natural Resource Program, Ohau, during a project to protect native species. The goal of the program is to effectively balance the requirements of the Army's training mission with its natural resource responsibilities. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. John Linzmeier)

WAHIAWA, HI -- Genesaret was in a bit of a ‘rut’ the first time she climbed Mount Kaala, the highest point on the island of Oahu. Harsh weather conditions struck the mountain from the East, making it unsafe for her and her friends to scale down the scenic ridgeline on the other side.

Nature, proving to be mysterious and unpredictable as usual, was exactly what she came out to experience and spending extra time at the marshy peak to gather her thoughts was hardly a setback for the crew of teenaged hiking enthusiasts.

Nearby, Genesaret spotted a group of people pulling heaps of grass from the earth and decided to inquire about their landscaping efforts.

“They were a volunteer group pulling this really invasive grass that flourishes in swampy areas,” said Genesaret Balladares, who is now an Airman 1st Class in the 154th Security Forces Squadron. “We’re like ‘do you guys need help? We actually have some spare time cause we’re not going to do this ridge hike.’ They said yes and ended up teaching us all about the mountain and why preservation efforts like this are so important.”

Of all the tidbits of information Balladares absorbed from the team of environmentalists, Balladares was most taken aback from learning about an unfamiliar-looking pink flower that was blooming all around her, known as a Koli’i. She always knew that the Hawaiian Islands were renowned to be the endangered species capitol of the U.S. but seeing one of these threatened specimens up close made the matter more personal than ever.

“There was something special about seeing that endemic flower for the first time, watching it blossom, and knowing that it only exists here and how I was possibly the only one in the world who was appreciating it at that exact moment. It made me feel that I needed to protect it and make sure it continues to flourish.”

This experience was back in 2014 and it ignited a lifelong passion for conservation which pervaded throughout her academic studies, volunteer work, hobbies and personal mission to give back to the ‘Aina,’ meaning land in the Hawaiian language.

These passions earned Balladares a reputation of being an earthy sort of person; the type who could talk for hours about tiny insects, gardening and her endless collection of native plant photos.

Six years later, as a member of the Hawaii Air National Guard, Balladares was called upon to serve the State of Hawaii in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. She and dozens of other Airmen from the 154th SFS formed a civil support unit called Task Force Reserve to augment domestic operations throughout Hawaii.

Her lifestyle flipped upside-down overnight, with most of her waking hours working alongside the Air National Guard’s most battle-hardened and most frequently deployed outfit of defenders. Being one of the most junior members in the unit, one of the few females and certainly the smallest in the group, she was determined to establish her role and connect with the team which was to become her second family.

However, it didn’t take long for Balladares to learn that her peers were vastly more interested in talking about other things such as the latest superhero flick, rather than her precious plant discoveries. With an ample amount of self-restraint, she managed to redirect her excitement for nature within the social sphere and focused on things that would be much more relatable.

Throughout the calmest and harshest portions of the pandemic, Task Force Reserve continued civil support on a tireless basis and the members who comprised it, invariably, became closer than ever.

Balladares remained in touch with her outer network of environmental professionals throughout her island-based deployment and kept an eye out for opportunities to help the environment. In the Spring of 2021, she received word that the Army Natural Resources Program, Oahu, was seeking help to move several tons of gravel near Mount Kaala. The goal of the program is to effectively balance the requirements of the Army's training mission with its natural resource responsibilities.

Now, a more self-assured member of her organization, Balladares said she saw this as a perfect opportunity to solicit the muscle from her security forces family to a cause that would aid the wildlife on a mountain that was sacred to her. The prospect of briefing her unit about the initiative was an unsettling idea, knowing that it might not be well received. But after seeking out and receiving command support, it was clear that at least a few members would step up to volunteer.

“I was thinking that nobody would be interested,” she said. “They don’t understand why I’m so passionate about it. I lost sleep over this and was worried that people would think to themselves ‘oh my gosh, this girl is crazy, she’s talking about her plant stuff again.’”

With all eyes on her during her initial briefing, Balladares’ pitch didn’t go as she had anticipated. It was an overwhelming success with 90 percent of Airmen committing to the volunteer project.

“It was clear that she was very emotional about this project and it showed us how much passion she has for this,” said Capt. Allison Delos Santos, 154th SFS operations officer. “It’s something that she feels strongly about; all the way down to sharing the scientific names of the plants and animals, their Hawaiian names, their features, and what they looked like. So, we could all see how much time and effort she has put into making sure this is successful and she made us want to be a part of it.”

Weeks later, after much planning and coordination between all parties, Balladares and her contingent of nearly 30 volunteers gathered outside of Schofield Barracks on June 8, to synchronize with ANRP personnel. The team huddled to receive a comprehensive briefing from program managers, learning about how their efforts will be helping biologists to preserve natural habitats of at-risk species and how they can do so while respecting environmental sensitivities.

Not only was the volunteer force the largest group to ever contribute to the ANRP, but Kim Welch, ANRP outreach and volunteer specialist also said they were able to complete enough labor that would account for five to six separate outings.

On perhaps, a more surprising note, Balladares said she was overjoyed to see how everyone was actively engaged with the initiative and asking nonstop questions about the native and invasive wildlife.

While being outspoken about her passions once seemed to be an elusive barrier between Balladares and her peers, volunteers were so excited that they lined up just to have their turn at viewing some of the critters and fauna which she illuminated.

“Looking back,” said Balladares, “I couldn’t be happier with how the day turned out. To have their support and permission to lead them; it’s been very empowering. Whatever insecurities I had with the group before going up the mountain, they all went away. I’m just glad everyone had a great time, worked hard and ended up making a difference”

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