Opening young minds to the natural world

Alabama Living Magazine
McDowell Environmental Center students enjoy exploring the creeks and ponds during the Aquatic Adventures class, which focuses on studying animals that live underwater.

Story and photos by Josh Levesque

How would you react if your kid returned home from school and began babbling about seeing snakes, milking a goat, and jumping off the top of a telephone pole? 

Located just an hour north of Birmingham, Camp McDowell’s educational programs have changed 170,000 lives since opening in 1994. Working with both school groups and families, McDowell educators use the property’s forests and farm to teach science, teamwork, and everything else a growing kid needs but may not have access to at home.

“Most people think of summer camp when they think of McDowell, but one thing that many people do not realize is that McDowell Educational Programs are nationally recognized and looked up to.”

Beth Dille (pronounced like the pickle), director of the Environmental Center, wants you to see how special the place is with your own eyes, not to take her word for it. “Gosh – just look at our pictures, our videos on our website or come visit us and you will see. We change lives.”

 The camp’s previous director, who worked with Dille in Texas years before, invited Dille to come to McDowell. She was skeptical.

“She asked me five years ago if I wanted to come work here and bring my son, Lucas, to grow up at an amazing place for kids. I didn’t want to live in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, but I said I would come to visit. As soon as I got here, I immediately fell in love with it and ended up taking the position with such joy. I became the director about a year later when she left for a different position.” 

The Camp McDowell property is owned and maintained by the Episcopal Church and was originally developed for summer camp sessions. But over the years it has grown to include the McDowell Educational Programs, which comprise the Environmental Center, Farm School, Alabama Folk School, and Magnolia Nature preschool. Although summer camp is religious in nature, McDowell’s educational programs are not, and all are welcome. 

The beautiful scenery on the property – located just south of the Bankhead National Forest – lends itself to teaching about the natural world in a way most families and schools can’t imagine. 

Scotty Feltman, director of the McDowell Farm School, holds one of the friendly chickens the children interact with.

“We focus on educating students, parents and teachers what it means to be connected to nature and each other. Camp is all about what the world could be like and we strive to do that as well with the educational programs. Many people think that with the family field trips that there is a religious aspect to the weekend, however this is not the case.

“Most people think of summer camp when they think of McDowell, but one thing that many people do not realize is that McDowell Educational Programs are nationally recognized and looked up to,” Dille says. “Our staff is made up of people throughout the whole country who found us because the work we do that is seen nationwide.”

Making a difference

One of the most striking things about the McDowell Educational Staff is the wide range of skills they need to learn for programs. It’s not uncommon for a staff member to teach a group how to milk a goat in the morning, how to rock climb in the afternoon, and all about constellations in the evening. 

One of the staff members with the most unique skills is Marika Van Brocklin, the animal program manager and outreach coordinator for the Environmental Center. Her job requires her to care for and train all of camp’s animal ambassadors (snakes, turtles, owls, hawks, etc.) and to use them to lead educational programs.

Van Brocklin says her job is “absolutely incredible.”

“Though it is challenging at times working with birds of prey and reptiles, the reward is well worth it. I love getting to educate people about the importance of wildlife native to the state of Alabama, while showing them some of our animal ambassadors up close. I have always wanted to be a voice for those who don’t have one, and I get to fulfill that dream every single day.”

Before COVID-19, McDowell educational programs drew more than 9,000 students every year, primarily through school groups from across the southeast. Directors take a lot of pride in being able to keep prices low and offering scholarships where possible, so not being able to accept the folks they’re used to seeing every year has been difficult.

“Most students have not been able to have any hands-on experiences in class, let alone personally experience the wonder of science in nature. McDowell Educational Programs have gotten students excited about learning through hands-on, inquiry-based outdoor education for decades,” Dille says. 

Marika Van Brocklin, animal programs manager and outreach coordinator, attempts to train a federally permitted black vulture to step onto a scale to be weighed. Black vultures are important for the environment, but should not be kept as pets. This bird now can’t survive in the wild after it was taken out of the wild as a baby.

“What we do makes a difference. It works. It changes lives. We want to be able to do that again. We are starting to be able to with schools coming to us and us going to them, but it’s taken a lot of work and struggling to figure out how,” Dille says.

Camp McDowell offers family programs and is beginning to be able to accept schools again. For more information, visit campmcdowell.org.

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