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New waterfall will keep Sahuarita school's tortoises cool for the summer

"It's a paradise for them"; Neighbors' donations helped upgrade home of Wrightson Ridge K-8's on-campus mascots
Posted at 5:05 AM, May 17, 2024

SAHUARITA, Ariz. (KGUN) -- — Kids at Wrightson Ridge K-8 School are wrapping up their year with a special treat. Their two tortoise mascots will enjoy their summer break by playing and drinking from their brand-new waterfall and rock pool.

KGUN9 stopped by school this week and talked to teachers and students who saw the project's grand opening on Monday.

Chip and Fred, the school's two African spurred, or sulcata, tortoises, graciously let our crew check out their home, but only after they finished a quick bowl of snacks.

Their caretaker, teacher Jen Sturzenegger, said she couldn't believe what she saw the moment of the big reveal. "I could hear the water running and I literally felt my eyes swell up," she said. "I thought I was gonna cry."

Sturzenegger said dozens of students felt the same way. They came running over to check out the new waterfall feature. "They were like, 'Look!' and they were like squealing and clapping. I should have recorded it because it was amazing."

In 2021, Sturzenegger, an English Language Learning teacher and student counsel adviser, took inspiration from other schools in the Tucson metro.
In her proposal to the Sahuarita Unified School District, she said building the enclosed tortoise pit would help students learn what it means to care for two animals that can can survive in a desert climate.

But after a particularly dry summer, Sturzenegger said she and her peers knew they had to find a more permanent solution to give Chip and Fred the water they need.
"I put an ad in the paper, the Green Valley News, and said, 'Anybody in the community, landscapers could come help us dig this bowl out."

Contractor David Lin from Lin Outdoor Living answered that ad. His brother went to Wrightson Ridge, so he felt this was an opportunity to give back to the community. Lin and his crew spent several days digging feet of dirt, lugging in wood chips, rocks and boulders. "Altogether, I would say (we moved) four tons of stone," Lin said.

He also built a pumping waterfall that the tortoises could easily scale. "It's like a paradise for them, so they can just walk in and out and they can drink water out of it."

"Here," Sturzenegger said, "they get a hearty meal every day and fresh flowing water, which we all know is hard to find in the desert."

Sturzenegger said she's grateful Lin dedicated four days of his time to create something for the school and the Sahuarita community. 8th grade student Gadiel Zazueta says if he had it his way, he'd come visit Chip and Fred twice each day

As his time at Wrighton Ridge comes to a close, Zazueta said he'll make the most of what's left this school year and enjoy seeing his 11-year-old reptile friends enjoy a cool splash.

"It's funny watching them kind of flop in the water and then walk over," he said. "It's really fun and cool."

For Sturzenegger, the reward in this vision is seeing students like Zazueta connect and care for the animals. "They've been helping me all year long take care of them, so they kind of become their family."

With Lin's donation and other neighbors pitching in, the group of generous Sahuarita sponsors and donors pooled $10,000 together to make the new waterfall.

Wrightson Ridge's faculty is excited to show off the improved garden. They said families and sponsors are now welcome to an open house exhibition on Monday May 20 from 3-4 p.m.

José Zozaya is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. Before arriving in southern Arizona, José worked in Omaha, Nebraska where he covered issues ranging from local, state and federal elections, to toxic chemical spills, and community programs impacting immigrant families. Share your story ideas and important issues with José by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.