By Greg LaMotte
Former Congressman Wayne Gilchrest and his assistant Jaime Belanger make up the two-person team at the Sassafras Environmental Education Center (SEEC), through which they teach the functions and importance of the local environment to schoolchildren in the Kent County, Md. area.
Gilchrest describes the overall theme of the lessons as agro-ecology, which he said is “how agriculture affects the local ecology.” His work on the center began in 2009 with his exit from Congress.
“[It began] with the idea of developing an environmental center for schoolchildren from K through 12, so when they got out of high school, they would have a frame of reference for how their life, and the life of their community, could be compatible with nature’s design,” Gilchrest said.
Belanger has been Education Program Manager at the SEEC for five years. She sees the mission of the SEEC in part as being a way to get kids outside, which is “something that they get less and less of in our current society.”
“Part of it is providing something they don’t get anywhere else, and part of it is that sort of integrated environmental learning piece, where they’re learning about all the issues that are going to affect their future, and why they’re important,” Belanger said.
Lessons taught by the SEEC, which include activities such as hiking, canoeing, and gardening, reflect what teachers are going over in the classroom. What is taught depends on the age of the children, and what the teacher intends to accomplish.
The center faces obstacles in providing these lessons however, part of which stem from the small staff size.
“It takes a lot for two people to work with 2000 kids,” Gilchrest said. “So we need partners, and persistence is important when you’re reaching out.”
Because Gilchrest and Belanger provide the lessons to schools at no cost, funding also presents a challenge for the SEEC.
“Educational services are delivered free of charge, otherwise the schools wouldn’t have money to come out here,” Gilchrest said. “So one of the obstacles, which continues, is to raise enough money to continue our program.”
Despite these challenges, the cause is worthwhile to Gilchrest, who said he believes environmental literacy is important to teach because children “don’t stay youth very long.”
“In the blink of an eye they’re running the country, and you need to have smart, reliable, responsible adults that understand nature’s design—how it all works,” Gilchrest said.
Gilchrest’s travels across the world while a Congressman gave him insight into how environmental illiteracy is widespread even among foreign leaders, and the consequences that came as a result.
“When I traveled in Congress, literally, many times around the world, to meet in palatial hotels, palaces, and in small, poverty-ridden, war-torn villages, 99 percent of the time I would find out that no one across the table from me knew or cared about environmental issues,” Gilchrest said. “And they completely misunderstood the economic vitality that can come from environmental-sound policies.”
Experiencing this disregard for environmental issues was part of what led Gilchrest to found the SEEC, in order to prevent it in future generations.
“I thought at least on the small-scale I can teach children, so when they get out of high school they’ll have that environmental frame of reference, and they will not be duped by Rush Limbaugh, or charismatic, snake-oil salesmen,” Gilchrest said.
Belanger reflected this notion of protecting children from misinformation as well, saying she doesn’t “want kids walking away with misconceptions that I hear adults say.”
Regarding the new White House administration and anti-environmental regulation bills in Congress, Belanger and Gilchrest say the center has not shifted its goals.
Although Gilchrest says he does not believe HR 861, a bill in the House of Representatives which would terminate the EPA, will pass, to him the consequences if it did pass would be severe.
“That would be catastrophic. From an environmental point of view, from an intellectual point of view,” Gilchrest said. “Not only would it be catastrophic, but it would be just tragically pathetic that our nation would do something so disastrous.”
As for how people can help with environmental conservation issues, Gilchrest holds that group organizing, volunteering, writing and calling Congressmen, or even contacting local government officials can make a difference. He adds that staying aware of issues and voicing opinions is important, and the impact of doing all this can be magnified in one’s local community.
Belanger says she believes more involvement of environmental education in school curriculum is another way to do this, referring to Gunston Day School in Centreville, Md., as an example.
“All of the teachers within this school consider themselves environmental educators, it really should be linked to everything we’re teaching, and that’s what I sort of believe,” Belanger said. “So I hope as a nation we’re working toward that.”