IslandWood: A strong link connecting people to Puget SoundBy eptak | February 25th, 2009 | Category: Eye on Olympia, Featured story, Get Involved, Headlines Around The Sound archives, Politics, Society |
By Sound News Reporter Emilia Ptak
“Tug on anything and you will find it connected to everything else.” The message of interrelatedness, adopted from the writings of the naturalist John Muir, welcomes you upon entering the expansive lodge at the outdoor learning center IslandWood. Written in a flowing cursive that weaves around a vast, steal, infinity symbol mobile created by local artist Buster Simpson, the message hangs over you. The vicinity spans 255 acres of pristine wilderness and is located on Bainbridge Island, a brief half-hour ferry ride from downtown Seattle. I recently visited IslandWood to explore the center’s role in connecting people to Puget Sound. By teaching both children and adults the importance of interrelatedness, what role has IslandWood played in bringing attention and involving the community in local environmental issues? As the mission statement declares, “[IslandWood seeks] to provide exceptional learning experiences and to inspire lifelong environmental and community stewardship.” I was curious to learn how IslandWood sought to fulfill its mission and the effects of their efforts in relation to Puget Sound.
In 1990, Washington state mandated environmental education, in recognition of its positive contribution to enhancing the learning experience, building better social skills, fostering a sense of community, and boosting overall academic performance. Environmental education is defined as: “a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action,” according to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO), 1977. With the lack of governmental state support, schools were left to their own means to incorporate environmental learning into the curriculum. Those lacking the funds simply fell to the wayside, creating a disparity gap in the accessibility to environmental education. As Dick Baker, the docent leading the tour I took part in explained, “at least 50% of Seattle schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods, were not getting residential education or environmental learning outside the city.” A 2004 report to Washington’s Legislature gave the state a “D” grade for its support of environmental education. IslandWood was founded by Debbi and Paul Brainerd in response to the failed mandate on the premise that environmental education is a right that all should have equal opportunity to.
The 52 million dollar project was financed by the Brainerd’s and the community. Local companies such as Boeing, Microsoft, and Starbucks contributed funds to the construction and maintenance of IslandWood. Local artists, craftsmen, businesses and companies specializing in green architecture and design were involved in the effort. In the Mammal Lodge, sepia photographs of the artists who built the furniture are featured on the second-floor landing. By actively engaging within the Puget Sound community, IslandWood has helped to foster a rooted sense of connection between residents, businesses, organizations, institutions and our home, Puget Sound.
IslandWood “offers hands-on learning opportunities using the unique ecology and natural history of the Puget Sound,” as declared on IslandWood’s website. As a collaborative effort that reaches out to the community, a variety of opportunities for involvement and learning are present and expanding. Along with the School Overnight Program, IslandWood offers the Graduate Residency in Education, Environment and Community (EEC) Program in partnership with the University of Washington, public tours 3 times per week, college internships, a Counselor-In-Training Program, Leadership, Stewardship and Sustainability Programs for businesses, institutions, and organizations, summer camps and family weekends, along with events such as storytelling to raise awareness of indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. And I am only mentioning a sample of activities.
Since IslandWood’s 2002 inception, over 17,000 students from Kitsap and King Counties have participated in the 4-day Overnight Program. The impact of the environmental education’s center was recently assessed in 2008 by a consultant Dr. Anne Kearney. IslandWood programs showed an increase of 38% in environmental content knowledge and a 57% increase in comfort with nature among students; “both important precursors to stewardship and conservation behavior, ” as the study states. How do the results manifest themselves in the Puget Sound community?
As I explored Bainbridge Island evidence of the environmental stewardship ethic was strongly present. At the local coffee shop Bainbridge Bakers, the community bulletin advertised a “Green” film festival, an upcoming sustainability forum, and a pamphlet of the wildlife rehabilitation center. While crisscrossing the island, I came across a restoration project focused on removing invasive species. Scotch broom and English ivy were successfully removed from a mile long stretch and efforts continue. The local organization Weed Warriors, of which Baker is a member, in one of several organizations dedicated to restoration. Currently, the group is working on a project to restore salmon habitat by removing invasive species choking a river. “This is an issue near and dear to my heart,” Baker states. His awareness of and dedication to addressing local environmental issues demonstrates his connection to Puget Sound through his love of home.
In Puget Sound Islandwood has made a considerable impact. Tim Stetter, the Environment Education Program Manager at the Burke Museum and former IslandWood educator, explains, “The campus is a model for sustainable living. Every step the students take in their stay on the IslandWood campus, they have a learning opportunity waiting for them.” When I asked Stetter how Islandwood compares to other Environmental Education residential centers, he definitively answers “IslandWood is certainly a national model: educators from all over the country visit IslandWood to share ideas.”
As a model for environmental education, IslandWood has attracted people from all around the world to visit the Puget Sound region, inspiring similar efforts of fostering a sense of community and stewardship by promoting sustainability to take place within their own local communities. In Taiwan the environmental educational center Dongyashan, was inspired and modeled after IslandWood. It is the first of 8 planned nature centers and part of Taiwan’s larger plan to provide environmental learning for every child in the country.
While IslandWood is recognized internationally as a model for sustainable living and for its excellence as an Environmental Education center, they remain sincerely committed to their cause to inspire a connection between people and place that empowers one to engage in their community. The sense of awe one experiences when visiting IslandWood is a shared sentiment. I spoke with Kate Anderson, a sophomore at Bainbridge High School who participated in IslandWood’s School Overnight Program 5 years ago about her experience. The first thing she mentioned was that she was able to reconnect with a friend that she had drifted apart from. She went on to mention that it was great having the class there together. As Kate’s reflection demonstrates, the opportunity to share an experience creates a bond.
When I spoke with Denise Dumouchel, an IslandWood faculty member who has worked in residential education for more than 20 years, about the center’s role the message was apparent: IslandWood views itself as a link in a chain. The message of interconnectedness that welcomes all visitors is embodied in IslandWood’s practice. The effort to provide a meaningful outdoor learning experience is truly a community endeavor, in which IslandWood is a participant within a larger movement. “We can all continue to grow.” Dumouchel’s statement conveys the theme that we are all in this together, but is particularly telling in the power that arises from working together as a community. Here in Puget Sound is a visible link of a global effort that illustrates: “Tug on anything and you will find it connected to everything else.”