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Michelle Frehsee

James Gelter in character during last year’s “Forest of Mystery,” a scary walk in the woods that BEEC’s primary fundraiser.


BEEC at 25

Environmental education center’s anniversary celebration will focus on the atmosphere

WEST BRATTLEBORO—The Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center is celebrating its 25th year.

On Saturday, Sept. 10, the Center has invited the community to an afternoon party on top of Heifer Hill. The hilltop provides a 360-degree view of the local region. The rain date is Sunday, Sept. 11.

The party starts at 5 p.m. with kite making and other activities. Participants can bring a picnic or register at the Center’s website ( and one will be prepared for them. The evening includes a poetry reading, a chance to see owls, hawks, and ravens up close, star-gazing, storytelling, and music.

“It’s breathtaking to see the moon through a telescope,” said long-time employee and writer Patti Smith.

The day’s celebration will focus on the atmosphere to bring attention to its importance and to remind participants about all the activities that occur in the sky, Smith said.

Smith described the atmosphere as the Earth’s invisible “protective blanket.”

“It’s the invisible thing that protects us,” she said. “It’s underappreciated.”

Climate change threatens that protective function, she said.

A longtime connection

Smith grew up in the Brattleboro area and was the organization’s first staff member. She started working there 10 hours a week in exchange for lodging and firewood.

In nature, 25 years is “a hiccup,” Smith said. But in a human lifespan, “25 years is a significant chunk.”

She remembers turning 25 and feeling like she’d reached a new maturity, Smith said. She feels it’s similar for Bonnyvale Environmental.

The Center is starting to take steps towards new fundraising and a potential capital campaign to upgrade its offices and classrooms.

“I look forward to the next phase,” Smith said.

According to Smith, Paul and Dorothea Stockwell started the education center on their farm, which dates to the 1700s. The couple purchased the farm in the 1950s, said Smith.

The Center provides public hiking trails showcasing former sugarbush and vernal pools. It also offers environmental programs for adults and children.

Paul was a science teacher and poet, Smith said. She described the couple as community-minded and generous.

The farm was many things before it became the Center, staff say. Among its previous incarnations: a potter’s commune, a learning center, and a residential high school.

In Smith’s opinion, the Center provides an essential resource to the community. In her view, humans are programmed to be in the natural world.

“It brings us peace,” she said.

Dual roles

Smith said the Center operates on two levels for the community. First, it provides a large natural space anyone can enjoy. Second, it hosts environmental programs that enrich people’s experiences of the natural world.

Smith said she loves her job. Educating people about their environment is an opportunity to “contribute to making the world a better place.”

“It’s easy to forget here in southeastern Vermont,” she said, “But the natural world is not the natural world it was 100 years ago.”

People need to care for the environment, she said — between climate change, toxins in the environment, and invasive species, the natural world is under stress.

Smith said she sees changes in the adults participating in the Center’s programs. “A light bulb goes off,” she said, and they often experience an awakening of new interests.

Happiness, playful learning, and being fully engaged are some of the qualities local educator Deborah Ayer saw in the children participating in the Center’s summer programs.

An AmeriCorps volunteer, artist, and educator, Ayer said she sees a transformation in how students learn when they cross from the classroom into a Bonnyvale program.

Ayer led the Center’s summer programs and also works as a long-term substitute teacher in local elementary schools.

She praised Bonnyvale’s programing and said she felt grateful to have been a part of it.

Alternate paradigm for learning

“It allows children the freedom to get what they need in the moment,” Ayer said. “Every child finds their place.”

Classroom learning is mostly paper- or screen-based and usually involves sitting in chairs; students process lessons through abstract or “conceptual thinking,” she said.

“No matter who you are, there’s only so long that you can sit with that paper and pencil,” Ayer said.

Ayer witnessed the same students from her classroom, some who struggled with behavioral issues, completely engage in the Bonnyvale summer programs. She described them as “happy and engaged.”

“That word ‘happy’ is huge,” she added.

Bonnyvale Environmental programs present similar material as classroom lesson plans, she said. The lessons, however, take place outside “with literally no boundary around [the students].”

Ayer said students’ senses are engaged, the learning is concrete, and the information is tactile.

“We’re built for exploration and discovery, and it is the natural environment that your body was literally designed to participate in,” she said. “The more I know about nature, the more interesting it gets.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #373 (Wednesday, September 7, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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