EcoFest brings out nature enthusiasts in search of fun, beads

WABASSO – Gray clouds threatened the Environmental Learning Center’s Annual EcoFest, but the showers stayed away on Sunday, as thousands of nature lovers of all ages took advantage of the spring weather to get out of the house.

The community had a chance to see the rebuilt Discovery Station, which was burned after a lightning strike in 2008.

The highlight of the day was the announcement of the winners of the Making a Difference in My World contest, sponsored by Florida Power & Light Company, which was open to all elementary school students in Indian River County.

Daisy Cabanas, a fourth grader at Osceola Magnet School, won second place with her essay on Florida Fishermen.

Pint sized panthers, leopards, and exotic birds roamed through the compound, thanks to the face painters at the Feathers and Fins booth, who nimbly turned normal children into all types of Florida fauna.

The return of EcoFest after the renovations was a big hit with Shannon Polland of Sebastian and her four children, age 4 to 8. The Environmental Learning Center has been a family tradition for her since her oldest, Gage, was an infant.

“We had him out here when he was in a stroller,” she said. “And they have all kinds of camps here. My son and my daughter have been to two or three of the camps.”

Above all the games, crafts, wildlife demonstrations and hands-on activities, Gage – adorned with a blue sailfish on his left cheek, painted on by volunteers, said he liked one thing best.

“My favorite is the shark tooth,” he said.

One of the booths not only had a exhibitors educating kids about sharks and their teeth, but they also brought sacks of real shark teeth and were making necklaces and bracelets for the kids. Gage Polland proudly displayed his new necklace, a free keepsake from the fun at EcoFest.

Kylie, age 6, also showed off a piece of jewelry she got from EcoFest as the family enjoyed lunch at a table under a tent sent up for visitors.

“I collected all the beads from all the games,” she said.

Every family coming in the entrance to EcoFest was given a reusable “green” shopping bag from Publix with a map and information about the ELC. The bags also came in handy for carting the craft projects home in one piece.

Each child was given a piece of string and sent on a scavenger hunt to collect brightly colored beads to make a bracelet, showing that they’d taken full advantage of the day’s activities.

“It’s fun for the kids, it’s a nice day out, and I don’t think anyone else does anything like this for free for the kids,” Shannon Polland said. “It’s nice that we have the ELC here as part of our community, I’m from down South and there are other places, but this is unique to have this here.”

Booths manned by energetic volunteers were set up throughout the compound.  Excited children played Nature Bingo, wove oyster mats, and got to see live snakes up close and personal, courtesy of the Treasure Coast Herpetological Society.

There were cast netting demonstrations, pond explorations, and canoe rides on the lagoon.

“Spectacular,” exclaimed Executive Director Holly Dill of the turnout. “We opened at noon and ran out of a lot of supplies by one o’clock!”

The ELC is one of the jewels of the Treasure Coast, tucked under the southwest side of the Wabasso Bridge.  Although it is a beloved destination for Indian River County school children, with dedicated naturalists who are passionate about the Center, it is a serene spot for adults, as well.

The ELC offers canoe rides, preserve walks, kayaking trips, gardening programs, stargazing, and buggy rides in the month of March alone.

Sponsors for EcoFest included the George E. Warren Corporation, Becker Trading Company, Gould, Cooksey, Fennell, P.A., John’s Island Real Estate Company, the Press Journal, the School District of Indian River County, and Windsor Properties.  Chairperson of the event was Pat Casselberry.

It takes hundreds of volunteers to make EcoFest happen, from the planning and set up to the actual day and the cleanup. The Vero Beach Power Squadron was there as part of the faithful cadre of worker bees, cooking hot dogs and hamburgers and selling lunches to benefit the ELC.

Harold Leh ran the cash box at the Power Squadron booth and had a vantage point where he could observe all the excited EcoFest adventurers strolling by.

“The people are beautiful and friendly,” Leh said.

Barrier island resident and long-time Power Squadron member and leader Ed Carr was helping to dish out the dogs and burgers. For decades Carr has led the Power Squadron’s efforts to keep the Indian River Lagoon and its spoil islands free of litter and debris.

Serving the ELC at EcoFest is another part of the boaters’ mission to protect local wildlife habitats through education and voluntarism.

“We do this for the ELC, we donate all the food and the workers, we enjoy cooking the hot dogs and hamburgers,” he said. “The ELC is a great organization, a green organization that teaches kids about the environment. They teach kids all the good stuff.”

For more information on becoming a member or on programs offered at the Environmental Learning Center, check out their website:

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