Rebuilt ELC Discovery Station a hit with children of all ages

VERO BEACH — Good things do occasionally take place as a result of tragedy, and such was the case after a lightening strike in June 2008, caused a devastating fire that destroyed several Environmental Learning Center buildings.  

The community rallied around the ELC and everyone from school children to corporations to philanthropic foundations contributed to the new buildings being literally raised from the ashes.

“It’s all such a step above what we had before,” said Education Coordinator Heather Stapleton.  “The fire was bad, but look at what it’s given us.  It’s all so exciting.  The artwork and text is all original, created just for our use.  It’s all wonderful, but of course I’m totally biased.” A brief dedication ceremony took place Saturday morning, thanking those who had contributed to the Fire Fund and welcoming the public into the wonderful new facilities.


The buildings were designed by Clemens Bruns Schaub Architect & Associates and the lead contractor was The Hill Group. Coastal Technology provided on site engineering and the utility engineer was John Robbins, PA.

The main attraction was the newly rebuilt Discovery Station, with its 13-foot long aquarium, Touch Tank, life sized manatee head replica, dioramas and exhibits.  Student Environmental Ambassadors were posted at various stations throughout the new buildings, explaining to visitors about all of the green construction aspects.

“We wouldn’t have this without all the contributions from the community,” said ELC Board Chairman Eileen Connelly.  “This is not the ELC’s building; this is the community’s building and we hope people visit often.”

“We plan to have rotating exhibits so that things will continuously change to keep people coming out,” said Stapleton.  “And we have a beautiful new pontoon boat; as soon as the Coast Guard gets the paperwork from Washington we’ll start taking it out.”

The buildings were built with many “green” aspects including thermal solar powered systems and even cisterns under the bathrooms to collect water which is then used to flush the toilets. On Monday, the buildings will be inspected in hopes of earning a Green Globes Certification, and the county may use the facility as a model green building.

As young Emma Farmer played with the various exhibits, her mother Kay said they had wanted her to visit the ELC before attending its camp this summer.

“She’s going to be in the Young Explorer’s program, for children entering first grade, with a few other children from Beachland.  I think she’ll love it; they can get dirty,” Farmer said with a smile.

At various times throughout the day, storytellers kept the little ones rapt with attention.  Famed children’s book author and illustrator, Debra Frasier, delighted children with readings from her first book, On the Day You Were Born.  Frazier was born and raised in Vero Beach and her father, the late George Bunnell, was a major force behind the development of the Environmental Learning Center.

Artist Cathy Ferrell was outdoors working on a lovely manatee sculpture, showing visitors how she sculpts, using the lost wax technique. “I’ve been dong this since I was 11 years old,” said Ferrell. “Each piece has a little story about it.”

Down on the lawn, Judy Sherako had a line of children waiting patiently to have their faces colorfully painted.  At the next table, promoting the ELC Nature Nuggets program, children were making their own bookmarks, using packing tape and bits and pieces of foliage collected at the campus.  The Nature Nuggets program is designed for three to six-year olds to explore nature one “nugget” at a time.

Rosewood Magnet art teacher Mary Partow was also busily making one of the bookmarks.  “I’ve just got my new lesson,” she said with a laugh.  “It’s a nice way to use nature.”

Another activity table was promoting the ELC’s Lagoon Night Sleepovers, what they call the “wildest” sleepover in town.  Children go on evening nature walks using red-tinted flashlights, so as not to disturb the animals, and learn about constellations, bioluminescence and nighttime critters.

Executive Director Holly Dill was all smiles as she watched everyone enjoying themselves.  The ELC continually remained open despite the fire, and she noted that it is still a work in progress.

“We’ve got lots of plans,” said Dill.  “We are seeking funding for a traveling diorama.  And the solar panels are on the other side of the building, so we want to have a display made with a meter so that people can see how much power we’re generating and how much we’re using.”

Out by the pond, some of the more adventurous kids were getting their feet wet, dipping skeins into the water and examining what they’d caught.  Junior Interpreter Ryan Zerega said they were catching a lot of mosquito fish, dragon fly larvae and water beetles.  Zerega has volunteered at the ELC for the past four years, beginning in the fourth grade as an ELC Ambassador before becoming a Jr. Interpreter in sixth grade.  He also works every summer as a camp counselor.

Zerega summed up the day very well saying, “The ELC has so many different things that people of all ages can enjoy.  It’s really for everyone in the community.” {igallery 190}

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