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Change in focus: A reimagination of the Environmental Learning Center

Photo: Aerial photo of the Environmental Learning Center

The environmental Learning Center is reinventing itself.

Without letting go of the children’s nature education curriculum that has made it a treasured part of growing up in Vero Beach, the 28-year-old nonprofit organization is expanding its ecological portfolio to include more “nature therapy,” reaching out to young and old alike to reconnect people with the natural world in ways that enhance both human and environmental health.

“There is so much research that is growing and growing that there is a significant human/nature disconnect that is associated with increased screen time and reduced access to green spaces,” says ELC Executive Director Molly Steinwald. “That disconnect is leading to a rise in depression, obesity, ADHD and other health problems.”

With the strong backing of her board, Steinwald is seeking to make the Environmental Learning Center into a portal through which people can enter back into a more healthy and meaningful way of relating to themselves and the world around them, leaving behind some of their stress and “disease” as they explore the ELC’s 64-acre campus and engage in projects that help protect and restore the lagoon that laps against the institution’s green shores.

At the same time, Steinwald is striving to help reinvent environmentalism, participating in a worldwide trend that seeks to integrate caring for the natural world with improving personal wellbeing, putting a special focus on people who may have difficulty accessing nature for a variety of reasons, including age, physical and mental disabilities and time limitations.

“There is a real necessity to change from a traditional environmental organization and traditional environmental education – kind of yelling at people, and telling them the rain forest is burning down, or the lagoon is shot to hell, and it is your fault,” says Steinwald.

“There has been a lot of work over the past 15 years focusing not just on the environmental problem but also on what people value and how you get to an environmental message or project that is addressing social problems at the same time. I have always been adamant and passionate about changing the way environmental education is done so that it is helping people and is also more effective.

“The world is a rough place. People are physically in pain, psychologically in pain, and nature can help people in so many ways. As more and more research shows wellness benefits from being in contact with nature, I see the ELC becoming a center for environmental stewardship that puts human health and environmental health on equal footing, because they are inextricably intertwined.”

“We are reimagining what the institution will be, embracing new choices for new audiences and creating access [to nature] for those who lacked access before,” says ELC board Chairman Bill Clemons.

The change in focus came in conjunction with Steinwald taking over the top job at the Learning Center in November 2014, stepping into the shoes of founding Executive Director Holly Dill, who ran the institution for 26 years until her retirement.

“We wanted someone from the next generation – to the extent we could find someone who blended deep knowledge and passion for nature,” says Clemons, a senior partner at executive recruitment firm Spencer Stuart before he retired who led the search for the ELC’s second executive director. “We wanted someone with management experience for whom this represented a significant move forward in her career. Whatever she lacked in direct management experience, Molly made up for in intelligence and passion.

“The board recognized that to grow meant to change. Exactly what that meant in terms of programs we were less sure of. Molly brought a rich mix of experience that made it possible for us to see this vision more clearly.”

“Following a 26-year founding director obviously has its challenges, but I was really excited about this place when I was recruited for the position,” Steinwald says. With all its impressive accomplishments over the past several decades, she felt there was yet great untapped potential in the expansive grounds set on an island in the middle of a beautiful but ecologically troubled lagoon.

“I have worked in the botanic garden and zoo world and a lot of that work has been building collaborations with social service agencies or other education or environmental organizations, and I have been doing that here to expand our demographic.”

Among other initiatives, Steinwald is developing collaborative programs with The ARC of Indian River County (serves special needs children and adults), the Scott Center for Autism Treatment, the Senior Resources Center, the Gifford Youth Achievement Center and the Indian River Land Trust, to bring the benefits of environmental education and immersion in nature to more people.

“What we are doing with the ELC is so truly exciting,” says Senior Resources CEO Karen Deigl. “Molly and I have been talking for a year, looking at interactive programs. ELC volunteers will come to our campuses to work with seniors on nature projects such as planting and potting, and there will be field trips to the ELC campus. Molly has been just wonderful about reaching out and partnering and collaborating and having great ideas.”

Senior Resources offers adult daycare, case management, emergency home assistance, meals on wheels and other services. ELC staff and volunteers will be working with adult daycare patients, 85 percent to 90 percent of whom have some form of dementia, according to Deigl.

Senior Resources Director of Programs Shawna Callaghan says lack of access to nature is a problem for many older people. “A lot of them have mobility problems and can’t get out very much or go very far. If they have memory problems or dementia, they can’t be left unattended and may not have had freedom to simply open the door and go out in many years.”

Callaghan says her clients have a strong, positive response to gardening projects and immersion in the natural world. “Being out in nature is so beneficial in so many ways for them. It reduces confusion and calms them. It is hard to motivate many of our clients to get up and do things but they are eager to go out and work in the garden.”

Deigl says gardening benefits clients physically and stimulates cognitive activity for those with dementia, awakening memories and reconnecting them to the world.

Even seniors who don’t have dementia or memory issues can be cut off from nature because of physical limitations and Steinwald recently acquired four all-terrain wheelchairs that can be checked out for free at the environmental Learning Center.

“The chairs open up 85 percent of the campus that people with difficulty walking could not get to before,” she says happily. “We plan to get more chairs.”

Indian River Land Trust Executive Director Ken Grudens is another fan of Steinwald and her partnership approach to drawing people into the natural world.

“We started a program with Gifford Youth Achievement Center in the 2014-15 season, where we took them out on hiking and biking trips on some of the Land Trust Trails on Wednesdays when they have a half day at school,” he says. “The ELC has taken that to the next level, because they have staff and volunteers who are more experienced at nature education. We did twice as many programs the second year as the first year with their help.

“It is a fruitful partnership. The students are fourth- to eighth-graders and you can see how delighted they are to be out there, directly in nature, participating in projects like planting mangroves, having fun and knowing they are helping the environment.”

The Land Trust also partners with ELC in an internship program, in which college students work at the Environmental Learning Center on a variety of tasks, trying out career paths, and on scientific research on Land Trust properties. This year, the program will be expanded with competitive, paid internships for high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Another initiative Steinwald is working on will create greater access to the ELC campus for everyone in the community.

“We are will be extending the hours we are open,” she says. “Instead of just being open during the hottest part of the day and the time when many people are at work, we will open earlier, maybe as early as 6 in the morning, and stay open later, until 7 or maybe 7:30 in the evening. Those details are still being worked out.”

“I saw a quote that said ‘the greatest threat to the planet is the belief that somebody else will save it,’” says Clemons. “That is why we are pressing forward, with the hope of igniting a spark in someone who will make an important difference to the planet’s future. If you sit on a bench and listen to the joy and excitement in children’s voices when they are exposed to nature, maybe for the first time, that is what motivates you and gives you hope.

“We don’t know the exact shape the changes here will take. I would like to see current exhibits improved and made more interesting and more appealing, along with a greater blend between nature, music and art, inviting photographers and artists to be part of the campus, along with people who have an interest in science and the lagoon. We want to keep the process of change open-ended and imaginative, reaching out to children, teens and adults.

“We are on a great trajectory with an exciting future with Molly at helm, bringing fresh perspective while at the same time embracing values that have made the ELC so successful in the past.”