Free Flight in Del Mar offers docent program for children and teens

Naomi Murray / Courtesy photo

By Kristina Houck

At just 14 years old, Naomi Murray knows more about birds than most people. A graduate of Free Flight’s Junior Docent Program, Naomi shares what she has learned with visitors of the exotic bird sanctuary in Del Mar.

“People don’t realize how smart they are and how much personality they have,” said Naomi, a freshman at University City High School in San Diego. “They’re ridiculously intelligent, and they’re just amazing.”

Naomi is one of 20 children and teens who have graduated from the program since it launched two years ago with a grant from the Del Mar Foundation. The Junior Docent Program kicks off its third year during the week of July 21.

During the five-day program, staff members teach children ages 12-16 about bird handling, nutrition and general care, and bird behavior.

“They come in not ever handling a bird before and now they’re the docents helping people handle the birds,” said Theresa Rij, Free Flight’s avian specialist, education project manager and grant writer.

Established in 1981 as a boarding and breeding facility, Free Flight evolved into an exotic bird sanctuary where birds and people interact, becoming a nonprofit organization in 2009. Located at 2132 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Free Flight aims to shelter, nurture, educate, advocate and celebrate parrots.

“We’re the only open sanctuary in Southern California,” Rij said.

Being open to the public and offering programs such as the Junior Docent Program not only educates the community about birds, it socializes the parrots, Rij said.

There are as many as 40 resident birds at the sanctuary at a given time. All need interaction with people, especially those Free Flight attempts to rehome.

“What really delights the birds are people who get them,” Rij said. “It’s one thing to have people in wonderment in front of them, but to have them actually know them — that’s where the Junior Docents come in.”

When Naomi first came to Free Flight last summer, she was a shy and quiet girl, Rij recalled. Today, Naomi visits Free Flight every Sunday to care for the birds, help staff and talk with visitors.

“I regularly tear up when I leave on Sundays,” Rij said. “I can’t believe how far they come. They’ve gone from being a student to a contributor. That’s the way of the world. It sets them on the right foot going forward.”

In addition to the Junior Docents, Free Flight is offering Parrot Day Camps and Parrot Summer Camp this year. Geared for children 9-16, camp sessions teach campers the basics about parrots.

Naomi, who is also an artist, is helping Rij design the art component of the camps.

“We’re excited,” said Rij. “We want to be able to replicate the success we’ve seen with Junior Docents and possibly, in the future, offer an advanced Junior Docent Program.

“We want to be able to reach more people with all abilities and find a way to have their life touched by birds as well as have the birds be touched by them.”

In addition to volunteering at the sanctuary, Naomi is also collaborating with Rij on a children’s book series that will benefit Free Flight.

Currently in talks with publishers, Rij is writing the books and Naomi is illustrating the pictures of “Abby and Friends.” Named in honor of the sanctuary’s 16-year-old hyacinth macaw, the series will educate children about parrots with proceeds going toward the nonprofit.

“Free Flight has shown me a whole new group of really cool people and made me more brave to try new experiences,” Naomi said. “If you like animals, you should definitely consider it.”

Parrot Day Camp takes place 10 a.m.-1 p.m. April 1, 2, 3 and April 8, 9 and 10. Sessions cost $25 per day, $45 for two days and $65 for three days.

Parrot Summer Camp takes place 10 a.m.-1 p.m. the week of June 23. Camp is $125 for five days.

The Junior Docent Program takes place 10 a.m.-1 p.m. the week of July 21. Camp is $125 for five days.

All proceeds support Free Flight.

For more information about Free Flight, visit