This story appeared in The Columbian on August 17, 2010. To see the story on Columbian.com, click here.
In the shadow of the Interstate 205 bridge, between major roadways and within clear earshot of passing trains, the nonprofit Columbia Springs environmental education center provides lessons to young and old on an 82-acre urban green space.
“We like to say we’re providing environmental education opportunities to people from the cradle to the grave,” said Gala Miller, executive director at Columbia Springs.
Miller and the rest of the staff hope to continue their educational services by raising $50,000 at a fundraising event scheduled for Thursday at the Columbia Springs campus.
The event, dubbed “Hooked,” is back for the second year as a “carnival for grown-ups” after the 2009 event attracted 175 people and raised $34,000.
This year the staff hopes to raise important unrestricted money that can be used for on-site education programs and overhead costs. With most of their funds coming from grants and partnerships that include restrictions on how money can be used, the dollars from “Hooked” will cover practical costs associated with the center.
“The unrestricted funds allow us to build on our programs and support our infrastructure,” Miller said. “Those dollars are harder to come by and a fundraiser like this finds those dollars.”
Columbia Springs has education opportunities for just about everyone, but especially for area fifth-graders.
“We bring students out here and touch upon some of the same objectives and concepts and themes they learn in the classroom, but in a more real-life and hands-on environment,” Miller said.
Every fifth-grader in the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts makes a day trip to Columbia Springs sometime during the school year. The students rotate through different stations, experiencing a stream table, wetlands and a nature hike.
The experience at Columbia Springs is closely tied to fifth-grade science curriculum in both districts.
“What they do really enhances the instruction from the classroom,” said Tom Archer, the science and health manager for Evergreen Public Schools, where students study science units based on environments, flooding and erosion.
The experience at Columbia Springs is important for Vancouver district fifth-graders to extend their learning during their Eco System Science Kits, echoed Allison Brands, the resource coordinator for secondary mathematics and science for Vancouver Public Schools. Brands said the opportunity at Columbia Springs is something some students might not otherwise have.
“Some of the kids really blossom out here when they get to be hands-on,” said Marci Caputo, development director at Columbia Springs. “Teachers even comment that their personalities change because they’re out here and get to touch and feel.”
In the past, Columbia Springs has not charged visiting schools for coming to the center, but last fall it started asking schools to supplement the cost of putting on the field programs by charging $5 per student.
“I wondered if they were going to flinch (at the cost) given their budgets, but they value this program enough to find it in their budget,” Miller said.
To keep the students learning in their giant outdoor classroom, Columbia Springs staff members have planned a fun night with a serious goal.
“It’s just a unique event,” Caputo said. “You don’t just sit down at a table; it’s more mingling and fun.”
“Hooked” will feature local musical acts, food vendors, drinks and games, including a special dunk tank that will put prominent Vancouver figures on a precarious perch, including Mayor Tim Leavitt.
The event will showcase areas of the outdoor education center, including a wet-bar housed in a former hatchery pool and the green space that is the focus of the center.
“When you go in here a little ways, you begin to see the value of an urban greenspace,” Miller said. “It does provide a respite for people to just be at peace with the world around them and feel like they got away a little bit.”
Columbia Springs is in the process of developing a strategic plan and hopes to do more with the historic significance of the site.
“Across the street from us was the site of the first sawmill in the Pacific Northwest and this whole Evergreen Highway area has a rich history,” Miller said.
Columbia Springs also has a building that is designed, engineered and permitted, but they need $14 million to have it built. The building would further the educational opportunities at the center by creating a program similar to the Clark County Skills Center’s.
“Our timing as we got our plans and permits on line wasn’t great because of what’s going on at the state level,” Miller said. “It’s a hard time to convince people that this is a priority right now.”
In the short term, Columbia Springs hopes to offer sustainability classes and to explore opportunities to expand trails and make the site more accessible and interesting to the public.
“People don’t have to go all the way to the (Columbia River) Gorge if they don’t have time,” Caputo said. “Ten minutes from their home is this space that belongs to the public.”