A Unique Setting

Lastly, Chef Camp, which celebrated its third year in July, welcomes members of the in-house kitchen staff and visiting local chefs to teach various cooking skills and techniques.

During the week, campers design the menu and create dishes to be served at a self-created pop-up restaurant. Along the way, the campers shop locally for ingredients, visit the farms and farmers who grew their food, and host tasting sessions and themed dinners.

Described by many as a true “jewel” nestled between Cleveland and Akron, the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers a myriad of recreational activities, along with historical significance in industrialization and commerce.

Designated in 1974, the park, then called the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (CVNRA), protects open countryside, a canal that helped build the nation, and the river that helped spark Earth Day and the Clean Water Act, according to an informational sign that hangs in November Lodge, a programming building on the CVEEC campus.

In 2000, the CVNRA was named the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Heffernan, who holds master’s degrees in biology and education, says she is a big believer in having approaches in formal education to augment traditional classroom learning.

“Not that it totally takes the place of it, but when kids are reading about things in the textbooks, but haven’t experienced it…when they’re learning about food chains and haven’t actually seen the dragonfly larva eat the opposing larva…essentially, when they come out here, they’re seeing all the things that they read in textbooks come alive,” Heffernan says.

“It’s about connecting youth to the land, and giving them experiences where they start to have emotional connections to natural areas. Having this jewel in between Cleveland and Akron is huge, and it’s so wonderful that it is preserved. And because it’s positioned that way, we can pull a lot from the urban audiences that wouldn’t normally have the chance to get to a national park.”

The CVEEC campus is surrounded by gorgeous meadows, lush forests, ponds, and walking trails. It consists of two 64-bed dormitories (Lipscomb and White Pines), furnished with bunk beds and dressers, bathroom and shower facilities, and common areas.

An on-site food-service staff provides meals in the dining hall.

The Schueler House, which serves now as the administration building, was built in 1969 and purchased by the park in 1981.

Wetlands were constructed in 1993 to serve as the wastewater treatment facility for the EEC.

The Lipscomb Dorm was one of the earliest homesteads in the valley, dating to the 1850s. Steps away stands the 12-year-old November Lodge, built using sustainable practices and alternative-energy sources, including sun tubes, south-facing windows, and refurbished wooden beams. A wind turbine and demonstration solar panels also dot the landscape.

The lodge houses the Legacy Room for large-group activity, a library, and a vibrant art room servicing the fine-arts portion of the curriculum. There are also campus science labs used for brief tutorials and instruction before outdoor lessons.

Facilities are wheelchair-accessible. Buildings are available for rental when children are not on campus.

“The Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center is not the only residential environmental-education center in a national park.  The Great Smoky Mountains has one, and the Tetons, but it is one of the first and with a project-based curriculum.

“We’ve tweaked the program over the years, but we’ve kept it project-based, culminating in projects that use the children’s thinking skills,” Heffernan says.

“This is a very academic program. Teachers are also learning when they come out. Most of the classes are outside, and only start or end in an indoor space. It’s rare to spend much time inside.”

Incorporated within the curriculum is a broad message to have fun, make new friends, and enjoy the national park setting, Heffernan says.

Homesickness is generally not a problem, as most campers come from nearby cities throughout northeast Ohio. Constant calling and emailing are discouraged, as they can take away from being engaged in the overall experience. Being slightly disconnected from home, after all, is the key to a successful camp encounter.

For those interested in day camp, the Junior Ranger program gives campers the opportunity to interact with rangers, explore the national park, and complete requirements to receive a badge.

“Our hope is that they learn skills in the various camps and certainly develop a love for being outdoors and utilizing natural areas and spaces,” Heffernan says.

“We work with our staff, talking about teaching moments. No matter what they’re doing, if a Great Blue Heron glides in and stops in front of you, gets a frog out of the pond, and is eating it in front of you, take a moment for that. It’s moments like that, special moments, because those are the things that bond kids to nature.

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