Since the 1960s, volunteers have sustained our education programs

At Fontenelle Forest, our volunteer Teacher Naturalists (TNs) and Teen Naturalist Trainees (TNTs) have played an integral part in sustaining forest education programs over the past 40 years. TN and TNT volunteers teach environmental education programs at the Forest and promote appreciation of nature for a wide range of visitors, from toddlers to seniors.

You may recognize the names of several of our regular TN-led programs such as Dirt Time, Night Hikes, Yoga in the Forest, and Forest Therapy. In 2018 alone, our TNs and TNTs volunteered over 1,200 hours, helping to inspire current and future generations to care for the natural world. With nearly 70 years of volunteer education, that’s thousands of hours of serving our community.

In the 1960s, an Omaha city forester named Jim Malkowski started to lead educational tours through the forest. They were so popular that a nature center was built in 1966, and Malkowski became its first director. Since that time, Fontenelle Forest’s educational offerings have expanded, as have the Nature Center, its staff, and its programs. The forest itself is one of the largest natural deciduous forests in Nebraska, and it is listed as a National Natural Landmark and a National Historic District by the Department of the Interior.

This year, we will be expanding our TN and TNT volunteer programs. Training will begin for new and returning volunteers in September 2019, with a focus on Fontenelle Forest’s natural history and how to facilitate discussions with visitors using the bountiful forest resources. We will continue to hold monthly volunteer meetings the first Saturday of the month for both TNs and TNTs. Our monthly volunteer meetings include guest speakers and updates on Fontenelle Forest, volunteer opportunities, and training.

Currently, our TNs (ages 19 and up) primarily help with special events, weekend programs, and guided hikes. Beginning this summer, you may also see TNs leading hikes for families attending Wild Summer Days and facilitating new education stations inside the Nature Center. After the September training, our TN program will offer a more diverse range of volunteer opportunities for TNs, including assisting educators with school programs, day camps, and senior outreach programs.

Wanda Pendley has been a TN education volunteer at Fontenelle for 15 years. Pendley has been coming here since 1962 and grew up enjoying what the Forest has to offer. “I like it, I want others to like it, and most importantly, I want people to respect it,” she says.

Pendley tells the story of one of her experiences leading Dirt Time in 2011. When their group walked past Child’s Hollow, a little boy confidently exclaimed “The Grinch lives here!” “We look at it and we see duckweed,” Pendley says, “but a five-year-old boy sees the Grinch.” Children appear to immediately connect with nature when exposed to it, and nature seems to elevate children’s innate wonderment and imagination. This is one reason why Pendley keeps coming back to volunteer at Fontenelle. “You learn twice as much from them,”
she says.

The TN program is designed to be adaptable to each individual’s availability and lifestyle. We encourage each volunteer to find the right fit for themselves in terms of how often they would like to volunteer and what programs they would like to facilitate. TNs are able to engage and teach visitors in many different ways, including in the classroom, on the trails, or at an education station.

Our TNT volunteer program (ages 13-18) will be ramping up in the fall and spring as we train a new team of high school students to lead education stations located along the forest boardwalk. As visitors hike the trails, they will encounter several stations where our trained TNTs will engage them with various educational activities. The September TNT training will focus on how to educate visitors on forest ecology and the fascinating plants and animals that live in the forest.

This is an invaluable opportunity for high school students who are interested in the natural world and would like to work on their public speaking skills. Beginning in spring of 2020, we will also provide several professional development opportunities for our TNT volunteers, including workshops on resume building and college preparation.

We are so excited to expand our TN and TNT programs at the forest and thrilled to welcome new volunteers to our team.

-Jocelyn Harrison, Adult Programs Manager

Fontenelle Forest is a 501(c)(3) tax exempt nonprofit.

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