Sunday, June 3, 2012

There are "Stars in Her Eyes"

       As mentioned in my previous post, it was in the heart of the Ozarks that my wife Martha and I made the most important decision of our lives. We chose to have children!
       Clearly, our children transformed us in countless and irreversible ways. Both of them, Nathan and Laura, throughout childhood and into adulthood, instill in us a sense of wonder. They both are environmental educators today, and continue to teach us their own lessons about the outdoors.  I've decided to write specifically about each of them on this blog.
       This is the story of raising a teacher, my daughter Laura.  Even when she didn't know she was a teacher, the steps in her lifelong journey kept veering her away from other options and returning her to the educator's path.  Born with a strong will and a persistent nature, Laura immerses herself in everything she does.  Even as a child, she always gave 100% to everything she did, whether it be participating in school or sports activities, or scheming to challenge her parents and/or irritate her older brother.

Laura at Elephants Rocks, Missouri
       Laura spontaneously jumps into new situations, with wreckless abandon at times, and almost always emerges successful in her efforts.  She has a magnetic personality and a love of life that just shows!  It's a quality that I affectionately call the "stars in her eyes".
       With a wide variety of interests and abilities, and a natural curiosity, Laura is determined to navigate new paths.   As a result, during adolescence, it was not possible to predict the role of nature in her emerging adult life.  She was raised on the banks of the Finley River, and loved any opportunity to hike or canoe up the river, as long as it became a social event, and not a nature watching exploration.  Our "hot dog hunts", when we took a picnic lunch up the river to swim, barbecue, and enjoy a summer's evening, were, and still are, one of her favorite things to do. 
On the bluff at Lindenlure
        There is always social significance in Laura's life, and such is the case when she enjoys the Great Outdoors.  She views nature as a place of beauty where people can gather to relax and enjoy life, but only when she is joined by others who are eating, drinking, and generally being merry.   Instead of the quiet canoeing of her childhood, she prefers group camping and a raft full of people laughing and splashing their way through the whitewater.
        Animals are in the center of Laura's existence.  She often wears her bear necklace, a reminder of a memorable family gathering at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in 2008.
Jackson Lodge, Grand Teton National Park
        She befriends any creature, whether wild or domestic, that crosses her path.  As an elementary student she handled boas and assorted creatures that found temporary refuge in my science classroom.  Still today, she loves to handle snakes and introduce spiders to her own students.  In what must have been a comical scene during a childhood vacation, she insisted that her entire family join her in a trail ride in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The other three of us could barely stay on the horses while she merrily steered her steed like a pro.  She is a staunch defender of domestic animals and strives to find homes for those that find themselves without one.  Her own pet Bella is a rescued pug, and has clearly implanted herself in Laura's heart.
Laura and her rescued pug, Bella
         Science became a focus for Laura in high school, as she won the Missouri State Science Olympiad Rocks and Minerals competition, clearly demonstrating her latent skills and aptitude in the natural sciences.  It was no surprise then, after she graduated and received her K-6 teacher certification that she landed "where she was supposed to be", according to her, as a 5th grade Science Instructor.  And it was in that classroom setting that her charisma, expertise, and inspiration flows on any given day.   It was truly an honor that she became a science teacher like myself, but her involvement as a project leader in cooperation with the Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems (GLADE) set a new standard for excellence in the elementary science teaching field.
Fifth graders enjoy a brisk day in the outdoor classroom.
         Laura worked as the school's Project Leader when two GLADE graduates envisioned a large project developed in partnership with the Ozark Upper Elementary School (OUE). Initially, GLADE alum Kelsey Rumley and Michael Withrow each received a $500 CFO/GLADE grant. Working with Laura and me, they developed a plan that included the restoration and expansion of an unkempt and incomplete outdoor classroom and trail system on campus. To get the project up and running, Laura and Kelsey gathered four classes of  fifth grade science enrichment students and the OUE Student Council to form a sizeable workforce. With the approval of school administration and Laura as their leader, the 5th grade students eagerly gathered each day in the fall to mulch, line the trails, and clean up the area.  Four outdoor classrooms and connecting trail system were carved out of the woods.
Trail Work!
        During the winter months, Laura, along with Master Naturalists, science teachers, and school administrators worked with the fifth graders to construct 32 Leopold benches, 8 for each outdoor classroom. 

Students assemble Leopold benches
In the fall of the following year, Laura wrote and received a $1300 grant to purchase and integrate binoculars, handheld GPS units, and service learning tools into the curriculum.  Shortly thereafter, she helped a 6th grade student write another grant for the area, and the empowered young man proudly received $350 so that all of students of the school could claim ownership to the project.
Completed Project!  Laura is the little teacher on the left!  :)

To date, the $1000 grant awarded to Kelsey and Michael has blossomed to over $10, 000 invested in the community school project. The figurative seeds of leadership and responsibility planted by Laura and her young conservation leaders have begun to germinate and grow inside as well as outside of the school.
         Following the outdoor classroom ribbon cutting a couple of weeks ago, we received a surprise closure to the project.  The Community Foundation of the Ozarks arranged for Laura and me to participate in The National Teacher Initiative of the StoryCorps project.  We traveled to West Plains, Missouri, to share our stories about science and environmental education in the rural Ozarks.  It was an awesome experience for this father and his extraordinary daughter. 
         And so, I come to the end of this Parent Post Project here at Conservation Conversations.  I vacillate between being so proud and feeling so humble about the paths that our children have taken.  Their stories are very different, as they are, but both explore what the term "natural born" means and both are a testament to the power of nature to assist parents in raising their children. 

My kids on Fidra Island in Scotland, 1995.
As they both manage their adult lives quite well, I reflect back to an early day in Scotland, where Nathan is simply content to watch for more birds, and Laura occupies the center of the social scene!  Both of them are examples of how exposure to nature can facilitate child rearing.  Our now grown kids are very different from one another, but their common family experiences include many nature adventures within a strong and supportive family.  Today both are responsible and caring human beings who follow their passions, give back to their communities, and live vibrant lives with hopes and aspirations for a kinder and more sustainable world.  I am one lucky father! 

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