Dunes Learning Center has educated Region youngsters about the environment for 20 years

NWI Times

PORTER — Just more than 20 years ago, Lee Botts and a group of environmentalists dreamed of a place where the Region's children could learn and gain respect for the unique ecosystem that is Northwest Indiana.

"The future depends on the kids," said Botts, who now lives in Oak Park, Illinois. "We wanted to find a way to make them good stewards of the Indiana Dunes for the rest of their lives and to get kids outdoors more."

Botts, now retired Indiana University Northwest professor Mark Reshkin and Dale Engquist, then superintendent of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, wanted a place where youngsters not only could get outdoors and enjoy the sunshine but become good stewards of the land.

That place, Dunes Learning Center, was authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1997 when U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, and former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar co-authored legislation that earmarked $1 million for the camp. It opened in October 1998.

Since that time, Dunes Learning Center has taught more than 100,000 youngsters, in grades four through high school, about the uniqueness of the Indiana Dunes. Students from the Region, Chicago and as far as central Indiana and southwest Michigan have come to hike the dunes, spend the night in cabins and leave with a greater appreciation of their environment, Executive Director Geof Benson said.

The camp is on the site of the former Good Fellow Youth Camp, which had operated as a summer camp by U.S. Steel from 1941 to 1975.

The camp on Howe Road was purchased then by the National Park Service and became part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The mammoth lodge and outbuildings laid shuttered until 1997, when the learning center was authorized. National Park Service workers and volunteers went to work to begin restoring the camp. The former staff quarters became administrative offices. Ten new cabins and a new lodge were constructed.

"It truly was a community effort," Botts said on the development of the learning center, adding she isn't surprised by its two decades of success.

Education is key

One of the first tasks of the new learning center was to develop curriculum. They developed or adopted programs such as Frog in the Bog, Dunes Versity and Dunes Scope for different levels of students. They also adopted Mighty Acorns and Calumet is My Back Yard outreach programs.

The center isn't only for students. Staff offer a variety of programs for all family members and for educators.

Westville High School environmental science and agriculture teacher Bill Smith has been bringing youngsters to the camp since it opened.

"It makes the classroom come alive," Smith said. "We are fighting a nature deficit disorder. Kids have gotten away from being outdoors."

Smith said his students sometimes go out for the day, sometimes overnight. They've helped raise the chickens reintroduced to Chellberg Farm and are participating in a University of Massachusetts maple sugar study to determine if maple trees are migrating northward. They participate in the CIMBY program and visit Red Mill County Park in LaPorte County with staff from the learning center to learn of the land's stewardship needs.

Portage Township Schools Assistant Superintendent Debra Dudek said Portage has had students participate since the beginning.

Local students, she said, often take the Indiana Dunes and its unique ecosystem for granted. Getting them outdoors helps them learn about the special place they live. They've gone hiking and snowshoeing and spent the night at the center.

"The experience for the kids is very rich. They become better stewards of their environment, and this becomes one of their favorite activities and a lasting memory," she said.

Other benefits

"The trend is that kids are spending more time inside today then ever before. On average, they spend about seven minutes a day outside," Benson said. Today, some schools don't even offer recess time, the center's director said.

In a way, he said, the learning center experience reintroduces them to the outdoors.

"It is even more relevant that they get more excited about being outdoors," Benson said.

Center marketing and development manager Michelle Krueger said the experience is even more important with the growing concerns about children's health.

"Kids need to get outside," she said.

How it works

The learning center is a nonprofit organization, Benson said, and operates on a $1.2 million annual budget. It is overseen by a 20-member volunteer board of directors.

Funding for the center, which operates year-round, comes from grants, corporate sponsors and individual donations, he said.

The center employs 25 to 44 people, depending on the time of the year. They house, feed, pay and train 10 naturalists, usually recent college graduates. They also employ 10 counselors, a director of education, three outreach educators, a chief naturalist, food service director and multiple part-time food service workers.

The food service workers serve some 25,000 meals a year, Benson said. Unlike other local eateries, they are inspected by the U.S. Marine Corps because the learning center is housed on federal property.

Benson said each of the schools that sends students receives some sort of financial support. The center itself provides $62,000 in residential program scholarships and $77,000 in summer camperships.

Benson said that after nearly 20 years of operations, there is talk of expansion. Booking schools and campers, he said, is like playing Tetris at times, trying to fit in all the requests.

He said they hope to add facilities soon to accommodate additional campers, and are looking to get larger buses to transport campers to various sites in the Indiana Dunes. Benson said they will continue to look at additional donations and securing grants to fund future plans.