Single mom Mandy Belille knows her oldest, 8yearold Evan, missed some important early lessons on responsibility and respectfor other children, for nature, for himself. He didnt get the respect from me that he should have, says Belille. I pawned him off on my mother while I was off doing my dirty deeds.
Belille, 30, is a recovering methamphetamine addict who has endured a year in jail and a winter of homelessness. She was pregnant with her second son, Gunnar, now 3, when she got clean and sober four years ago. Now the family lives at Belle Haven Town Homes, a 16unit complex in Princeton, MN, for parents with a history of substance abuse, a track record for staying clean and children schoolaged or younger.
Belilles youngest, 22monthold Gracie, has never seen her mother use drugs or alcohol. But Gracie and her brothers had never seen a nature trail or a wildflower meadow, either.
That changed in June, when Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, its Friends group, the local United Way chapter and the nonprofit Rum River Health Services joined forces to host the first Sherburne Refuge Explorers Camp. Thirteen kids ages 3 to 13plus two parents and Gracie, the baby of the groupsigned up for the fourday camp. All came from families scarred by substance abuse.
The children saw an eagles nest, a field of blooming lupines, some minnows, a snake, and a snapping turtle. They picked up a toad (Oh! He peed on me!), met a firefighter and hunted for bugs.
Guided by environmental educator Dave Ellis of the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, the kids wrote in their first nature journals, took their first nature photographs and planted their first wildflower seeds. And, if the program works as planned, they planted the seeds of a healing relationship with nature.
The children we deal with spend the majority of their life in survival mode, says Mica Zimmer, Rum River Health Services family advocate. We wanted to show them that they can enjoy life.
The Kids Loved It
The camp began with a conversation between Sue Hix, president of the Friends of Sherburne, and Joy Nadeau, executive director of the Sherburne County Area United Way. Nadeau wanted to try a summer camp teaching life skills to help steer children away from substance abuse. Hix was enthusiastic and suggested working with the Rum River Health Services clients. With guidance from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service environmental education professionals, Hix, Nadeau and Zimmer devised a curriculum.
Camp began each morning in Zimmers office with exercises on sharing, responsibility, respect and teamwork, and then moved to the refuge.
We all contributed different things, Hix says. Sherburne Refuge visitor services manager Betsy Beneke and other employees provided support, made copies and lent field tools. The Midwest Region contributed Elliss time and that of intern Lionel Grant. Hix and Nadeau volunteered as camp counselors. The Friends sponsored a precamp workshop. The United Way provided Tshirts, snacks, water bottles, compasses and toy turtles. The camps total cost was less than $500, Hix says.
Were developing a model that other refuges and Friends groups could use, she says.
The kids loved it.
Belille said her children were excited to get up every morning and go to camp, and she thinks they learned important lessons, including how to respect nature. Along with other Rum River campers, they return to the refuge regularly to help pick up trash along trails and ponds. Hix and Zimmer say they would love to repeat the camp next year. And Beneke says the group is welcome to return.
We were so happy to host these families as they learned about the natural world together, creating new, healthy experiences and bonds with each other, Beneke says.
To refuges and Friends groups considering a similar program, Zimmer says: Go for it. It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience, but its so, so worth it.
Heather Dewar is a writereditor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.