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JVES students help plan environmental learning center

by Linda Hiller

Current and future students at Jacks Valley Elementary School are the beneficiaries of a visionary parent with (almost) an obsession.

Jocelyn Helling has the idea that an outdoor learning “Habitat” could be a stimulating, educational, creative and inspiring resource for not only JVES students, but potentially all students of Douglas County, and when she gets an idea, it happens.

Helling would be the first to say that the initial idea for the natural habitat was not hers alone.

Four years ago, the Global, Environmental and Multi-cultural (GEM) committee, an offshoot of the Douglas County School District’s Strategic Planning Committee, explored the possibility of creating an outdoor workshop at one of the district’s schools, and because of several factors including available land, natural features on that land, safety, staff interest, etc. JVES was selected to be the pilot site. When that committee concluded its mission and dissolved more than two years ago, the project was tabled.

Helling’s interest in the project stemmed in part from that fact that her son Max, 9, attends JVES and is in the 4th grade, and her daughter, Katie, attended the North County school before she died of cancer in the spring of 1997 at the age of 9.

Money donated to the Helling family during their daughter’s illness has been saved and earmarked for special projects such as “Katie’s Corner,” a reading area in the Pinon Hills Elementary School library, and now the “Habitat” at JVES.

The Hellings are Johnson Lane residents. Prior to the opening of PHES in the fall of 1996, students from that neighborhood were zoned for JVES.

Last week, Max and Jocelyn participated in a walk-through by another Habitat champion, JVES 2nd grade teacher Lynn Egan, and her students.

“It was really Lynn Egan that initially suggested the Habitat idea to me,” Helling said. “We had money left over in Katie’s trust, and I asked her where she thought it could be best put to use at Jacks Valley. Lynn though the Habitat would be perfect.”

Before the project was even started, Egan surveyed the teachers at JVES and got their support as well as the enthusiastic support of Principal Pam Gilmartin, Helling said.

n $7,000 in donations. Partners in Education, the parent/teacher group at JVES, has helped fund the Habitat with a $1,000 grant. Additionally, the $3,000 from Katie’s trust, and a recent anonymous $3,000 donation, brings the total funds available for the project to $7,000.

PIE President Sheila Anderson is also enthusiastic about the environmental learning center project, Helling said. The two parent volunteers often function as the “resident biologists,” and lead tours through the site, as do many other parent volunteers.

Helling, Egan and Anderson are adamant about involving the students in the development of the Habitat, located in a fenced 1/3- acre east of the school building.

Ideas for the site are being solicited by students of all ages, making the habitat a learning- how-to-develop tool already.

Initially, Helling said, the idea for the habitat was introduced to the students through a school bulletin board in the multipurpose room, where they were invited to write down their suggestions after touring the site.

“Their ideas were great,” Helling said. “We’ll try to use as many as we can. These are smart, thoughtful kids.”

Some of the ideas collected from the students include building trails, a pond, tables and benches, importing elk, some sort of an arbor, feeding cheese to ants, taking the fence down to let the deer in, planting a butterfly garden, making a sand pit so animal tracks can be molded with plaster of Paris and preserved, building birdhouses, planting trees, and making a compost pile/worm zoo and more.

Many factors, including, safety, security and wildlife access, are also being considered by the Habitat Committee, which held its first meeting the end of October.

n Using the children’s ideas. “When we held the organizational committee meeting, the children’s ideas were shared so the design of the area will reflect much of their input,” Helling said.

During their walk-through last week, “inventory” students in Egan’s class encountered a dead bull snake, a Rufous-sided Towhee, various bleached bones, a potato bug (Jerusalem Cricket) and a feather from a flicker (a woodpecker), Helling said.

“It was amazing how excited kids can get over an orange feather,” she said. “Of course, a flicker feather is really pretty, but the kids asked all sorts of questions about the feather.”

Students have been asked to complete a drawing or poster of what they would like to see the habitat become and to also recommend a name and a logo. Currently, JVES, a single track year- round school, is on a one-month track break, but returning students with posters will have them displayed for the rest of the school to view, Helling said.

Because this is a new effort, only a few businesses and organizations have been contacted to help, but to date, Albertson’s grocery store in Carson City has offered to supply produce trimmings for the proposed compost pile/worm farm, and Carson Valley landscape architect and entrepreneur, Howard Godecke, has offered to help design the landscaping and also donated some of his popular seed sock bird feeders.

Other community members, including parent Kevin Schaller and compost expert Craig Witt, have also offered to help. Matt Ammons, of Sierra Springs Water Company, is donating a five gallon jug for each JVES classroom to use in an upcoming penny drive, with proceeds going to the Habitat, Helling said.

And, Resource Concepts in Carson City, where Anderson is a range specialist, recently brought global positioning system equipment to the site in order to establish its boundaries using satellites. Resource Concepts will be preparing a bulletin board to explain the high-tech mapping process to the students.

“The possibilities with this project are endless,” Helling said. “We are now looking into how we can make it handicap accessible without paving, which gives us the opportunity to talk about that subject with the children. So far, we think we’ll use hardpacked material for the trails.”

n Ready by Earth Day? While this is an ongoing project that should evolve and never really stop being amended, Helling said, the goal of the initial habitat committee is to have the area cleared of cement and debris, and graded, so that seating can be in place, by Earth Day in April.

Never one to think small, Helling is hoping to have a helicopter bring in a dead tree or a rotting log on Earth Day.

“Wouldn’t that be exciting? The tree would be used as a raptor perch and bird cover, and could help show the children that even a dead tree has value in nature,” she said. “I’m hoping we can find a helicopter logging company to bring us a log on Earth Day.”

In the spring, Helling said there is already a plan to have the classes that traditionally raise butterflies to plant a butterfly garden in the Habitat, where they can release their Painted Lady butterflies.

“The children can take over the project in the spring months, with further design and planting of a butterfly garden and the composting area/worm farm,” Helling said.

Although the eventual total cost of construction will most likely exceed $7,000, Helling said she hopes that further resources will be donated by the community.

“What we really need right now is for someone with a backhoe and a dump truck to break up and haul away cement and a heavy metal frame,” she said. “If any individual or company is able to help make this area ready for real work – the work of the children – I hope they’ll call the school.”

The next meeting of the Habitat committee is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov.17, at 3:15 p.m. in the library.

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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