Construction is underway on a new building at the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Five Rivers Education Center in Bethlehem that officials hope will cement the preserve’s status as an education destination for the region’s young learners
The Guided School Program building project was made possible through a significant monetary donation given to the Friends of Five Rivers citizen’s support group in 2003 from the family of the woman who began that program.
“It was a substantial amount without which the project would not have been possible,” said Rich Bader, Friends of Five Rivers Board president.
The Guided School Program began in 1978 as the creation of Wendy Repass Suozzo. Since that time, more than 200,000 students have taken lessons through the program. The Repass family of Massachusetts partially funded the project in her memory. A final cost of the entire project still isn’t known, but officials said it is a sorely needed improvement.
“The original building was built in the 1930s as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps camp and was by all definitions, dilapidated,” Bader said.
According to Five River Executive Director Craig Thompson, the new building will be about 23,000 square feet and serve multiple purposes. Not only will it be a meeting place for students and their guides in the Guided School Program, but it will also house new classrooms, continue to serve as the after-hours comfort station and include new bathroom facilities.
The building will also be energy efficient with the capability of becoming LEED certified. The hope is for the building to be finished by the end of the year.
Each year, the Guided School program offers a bevy of DEC-approved lessons for students to use as a supplement to their traditional education. Guide classes include snow shoeing, winter challenge, a maple lesson on how maple syrup in made, stream life, world of ponds, animal science, an insects lesson and a young explorers lesson. Each lessons lasts about two hours long and takes place at least partially in the field.
“The hope is to spark their interest and curiosity in the natural environment to foster an appreciation for nature,” said Bader. “This is the most important work we do because without an appreciation of nature starting at a young age, they won’t worry about protecting it as adults. Everyone is so plugged in now, it’s more important than ever we do this work.”
Thompson said the Education Center and Guided School Program also serves as a tool for teachers when many school districts are facing budget cuts. Five Rivers has received several grants over the years to fund transportation for schools that wish to bring their students. Many local districts have eliminated field trips from their programming, so such outside funding is often the only way Five Rivers will be part of the curriculum.
The next project the group wants to tackle is replacing the visitor’s center on the property, but budget cuts from the state mean it is not known when that might be possible.
“The new building is being constructed with a new visitor’s center in mind,” said Thompson. “Right now, we’re taking one building at a time.”
Bader said a second building project could likely take years to get underway because of the lack of funds. The staff at Five Rivers has been cut in half over recent years, so the Friends of Five Rivers and other volunteers have been working to pick up the slack.