Safe to say, ELC is phasing in more family-friendly fun

[Photo: Kaila Jones]

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Learning Center has had to revamp activities somewhat to maintain its efforts to educate, inspire and empower people to be active stewards of the environment.

ELC staff, board members and volunteers kicked efforts into overdrive in order to continue to provide a place for young and old alike to find adventure in nature, while at the same time educating themselves and improving their overall wellness.

With the exception of one month, the 64-acre outdoor campus has remained open for public use. Unfortunately, the closure of the gift shop and cancellation of indoor experiences, classes, summer camps and programs have seriously curtailed revenue.

With admission sales down and the postponement of several events due to weather and the coronavirus, Barbara Schlitt Ford, ELC executive director, launched her own Blue Hair Challenge to make up for the losses. Promising “Blue Hair for the Blue Planet!” she pledged to dye her light blonde hair bright blue in hopes of raising $100,000.

Ford can be easily spotted around town sporting her new hairdo as, with help from several grants and public support, the goal was reached.

On June 1, the ELC began a phased reopening, offering pond dip netting, benthic (relating to the bottom of the water) explorations, pontoon and guided kayak tours, canoe and kayak rentals, educational lectures and virtual experiences.

Another popular new experience being offered is their Lagoon Island Family Adventure, with families selecting from a menu of options to tailor their adventure. Activities include seine net fishing, campfire cooking, turning saltwater into freshwater, knot tying, nature journaling, visiting with ELC aquarium critters, building a shelter and learning survival skills.

By offering these private, immersive experiences, the ELC can continue to educate families about the rich biodiversity of the Indian River Lagoon, its heritage and preservation – the premise upon which the campus was founded more than 30 years ago.

While school field trips and summer camps have been canceled, the ELC youth volunteer program has continued. GreenTeens, high school volunteers motivated to make the world a better place, and Junior Interpreters, an ecology mentoring and volunteering program for middle schoolers, have continued their work virtually.

So that younger children can continue their environmental education, staff and volunteers have found ways to educate and interact with budding ecological advocates. Nature Near You Kits, including Science Technology Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.) activities, provide everything needed for families to explore nature on their own.

ELC environmental educators virtually help families unpack the kits, which include supplies and instructions for six hands-on activities along with instructional videos on such topics as bugs and how to be a scientist.

“We absolutely love them!” said Karrie Dozer. “I provide summer camp-type activities for a handful of kiddos (along with my own two) and it is so nice to have these kits to look forward to (even nicer that I don’t have to do anything but open it). The kids look forward to the interactive Zoom calls, and I look forward to organized (educational) activities that the kids really enjoy. I am really excited to continue with this program all summer long.”

“We’re going to be moving toward more virtual events for late summer. Everyone has to be creative in how to engage safely while continuing with their message and mission,” said Ford.

“The pandemic has shined a light on the fact that the health of the natural world is tied to human health. It’s not just save the planet. It’s save the people. It’s all tied together. When one is not functioning well, it’s a ripple effect right on up to humans.”

According to Ford, the loss of wildlife habitat creates an environment that can contribute to pandemics.

“There’s a prediction that there could be more, because wildlife that doesn’t normally come into contact with humans are much more frequently coming into contact with humans, because of the loss of habitat.”

While reports of an increase in bird sightings and improved air and water quality during the lockdown are coming in, Ford notes that there have been negative impacts as well. Among them is the litter caused by an increased use of gloves, masks and disposable restaurant takeout packaging.

“The lines between the ecosystems are being removed,” said Ford. “We have to protect the places for them to live. We can’t stop our mission. We won’t stop our mission. We will be creative and adaptive and collaborative in how to continue to be successful.”

Given the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, the ELC opted last week to close its indoor facilities, but the campus remains open. Guests can enjoy the butterfly garden, boardwalks and trails, citizen science walk with informational signage, and nature play area.

Payment can be made online or by using the honor system box on campus. Guests are required to wear masks when interacting with ELC representatives.

“We still want to give people a place where they can go outdoors safely. We believe people need places to get outside and have space; now more than ever,” said Ford.

The coronavirus hasn’t stopped the ELC from making campus improvements. Work has continued on the Thomas R. Schidel Education and Event Pavilion, which is currently in the permitting and contractor bidding stage. Groundbreaking is planned for the fall with a projected completion date of March 2021.

It will serve as an outdoor event space with a summer kitchen, where educational programs, concerts and theater performances can be held. Other possible uses include a farmers’ market, outdoor movies and art shows. They also envision it as a casual dining venue, with a lagoon-side shaded grassy area for outdoor activities where the community can gather safely.

“It’s going to be a great venue because it’s going to be outdoors, which is what is going to be in demand for some time,” said Ford.

Upcoming events include a virtual happy hour Biology and Brews on July 9, and the Treasure Coast Waterway Cleanup on July 25.

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Photos by: Kaila Jones
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