Partnerships in the Refuge System: Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge and Neighboring Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom

Sue Hix is the President of Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge and also a refuge volunteer.

Planting the Seed

It all started more than four years ago. The details are lost in the mists of time, but I do remember that another Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge volunteer/Friends of Sherburne member and I were invited to a “nature classroom” meeting at a school in nearby Elk River, MN. The Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom Demonstration Site was just a year old and the result of a grant from the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation/Arbor Day Foundation awarded to the Early Childhood Program. [Note: There is also a certified Nature Explore Classroom at the National Conservation Training Center.]

Ribbon Cutting for the eagle nest | Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge
Ribbon Cutting for the eagle nest | Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge

The budding program was looking for people to help—whether planning and maintaining garden and activity areas or contributing plants, landscaping materials, equipment, ideas, and just plain elbow grease. I soon learned that the early childhood and preschool teachers would also welcome the kind of resources that the refuge and Friends of Sherburne could provide—for example, teacher workshops about using the outdoors as a classroom and visits by volunteers to introduce the young students to nature and wildlife topics. The site, adjacent to a school building, in a neighborhood only two blocks from the center of downtown, and only one block from a major highway, held much promise. I took the plunge.

I started cautiously, donating plants and using my Master Gardener background to help renovate flower beds and plan new ones. Pretty soon I found myself attending regular committee meetings and visiting summer classes in the Nature Explore Center to talk to preschoolers about turtles, raccoons, plants, and other cool things. My volunteer hours there were adding up, and I learned I could “trade” them for free ads for refuge events in the Elk River Community Education catalogs, a deal worth hundreds of dollars a year. Not bad!

One thing led to another. I got to know one of the other Nature Explore Center (NEC) volunteers and was impressed by all she knew and her ability to convey it. I suggested she might enjoy becoming a refuge volunteer. Not only did she and her husband become refuge volunteers, they also became Friends members.

Meanwhile, I was also getting more involved as features were added to the NEC and the school district applied for and received a grant for a public art project featuring five life-sized deer sculptures and an entryway arch topped with a heron nest and herons, all in metal. By then a couple of the teaching staff members had also become Friends members and refuge fans, and the NEC could be classified as a destination as well as an outdoor learning site.

A Partnership Blossomed

The plot thickened as management at the refuge, the school, and the Friends decided it might be worth applying for one of the initial Urban Wildlife Initiative grants. Admittedly this was a long shot since the estimated population of the school district was less than 60,000. Though the refuge didn’t receive that grant, everyone loved the project—to build an “eagle nest” deck with interpretive signage and bring NEC students to the refuge. So the Friends applied to a local foundation, which funded the project. The school district contributed both funds and materials, the refuge contributed expertise, and many volunteers—including school staff, Friends, and community members—contributed hours to line the nest with sticks to make it ready for preschool “eagles.”

Children enjoy the wingspan display at the Ribbon Cutting of the eagle nest | Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge
Children enjoy the wingspan display at the Ribbon Cutting of the eagle nest | Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge

This partnership has evolved slowly over time, and solid relationships and trust have developed along with it. As a result, more people know about and have visited the refuge. Our Friends group has new, active members. Other volunteers and I have new friends/Friends, including two very special kindergarten naturalists and their families. In short, it has been a winning proposition for all involved.

Here are some of the things we’ve been able to do together:

  • Host the preschool staff for an “outdoor classroom” teacher workshop, including time exploring at the refuge for teachers and their children and grandchildren.
  • Bring the refuge’s “mystery box,” fur pelts, an owl station, and refuge brochures to a Not-So-Scary Halloween event attended by more than 75 young children and their families.
  • Build the “eagle nest” (modeled after a similar nest at the refuge), provide interpretive signage, develop a refuge information sign, and create a weather-proof children’s book, mounted at kid height next to the nest, and telling the story of The Bald Eagle’s Home.
  • Plan and host a ribbon-cutting for the eagle nest, held in conjunction with Elk River Family Fun Night. Refuge volunteers acted as interpreters at the nest and helped students add nest sticks. Indoors, Friends volunteers provided information about the refuge, the Friends, and upcoming events.
  • Host groups of young Elk River students on visits to the refuge. The Friends were able to cover transportation cost for one of the groups.
  • Assist one of the preschool teachers as she presented a Nature Explore Center orientation for staff and suggested new ways they could use the outdoors as a classroom. The refuge provided posters for classrooms, and the Friends donated some magnifying “bug boxes” to encourage teachers to get their students outside on a regular basis.
  • Invite the NEC to have a booth at the refuge’s annual Wildlife Festival on October 4. Teachers will help young visitors create their own nature journals while parents learn about the NEC and programs there.

The story continues, but this chapter ends on a particularly happy note. The Nature Explore Center at Elk River’s Handke Family Center just received certification and a plaque, making it the 229th certified Nature Explore Classroom in the United States!

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2014/09/partnerships-in-the-refuge-system-sherburne-national-wildlife-refuge-and-neighboring-nature-explore-outdoor-classroom/

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