YELLOW SPRINGS – Andrew Hamiel now knows that turkey vultures don`t eat turkeys at all.
He also recently discovered that a barn owl has 14 bones in its neck, and can turn its head three-quarters of the way around. He stroked the coarse bark of a white oak and fully understands how the tree has adapted to protect itself from forest fire.
The 10-year-old did all this while camping for two days with 91 classmates on land owned by a college that some see as a sinking ship: Antioch College in Yellow Springs.
Though the 155-year-old liberal arts school remains in turmoil, the Glen Helen Ecology Institute and its 1,000-acre nature preserve remains open to the public and is flourishing. In fact, even though Antioch College`s alumni continue to try to raise enough money to fulfill commitments to keep the school open beyond next year, improvements are under way at Glen Helen.
The Outdoor Education Center at Glen Helen is the oldest program of its kind in the Midwest. Since 1956, tens of thousands of school children have attended camp here, immersing themselves in nature and studying alongside college interns and naturalists. But along with the prestige of running a center with such history comes problems, said Nick Boutis, executive director.
“We also have the oldest pipes, the buildings with the most termites, the most outdated electric systems,” he said.
Maintenance has been difficult at times. Donors are generous, he said, but it can be hard to raise money for sewer lines.
“Everybody wants their name on a building,” he said. “But nobody wants to put their name on a toilet.”
Now, with the help of grants from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Kettering Foundation, work is under way on a $300,000 project for new fresh water and waste water lines. Gas lines will be upgraded and electric wires buried.
The work, Boutis said, will allow Glen Helen to be better stewards of the land. “We`re not treating the environment very well if we have sewage lying around on the grounds,” he said.
Budget concerns remain, however. It takes about $730,000 to run the operation, including the popular raptor center, which takes in about 200 injured birds – mainly hawks, eagles, owls and falcons – each year for rehabilitation.
Most of Glen Helen`s budget comes from user fees, membership fees and donations. But 5 percent comes from Antioch College. Because of the school`s financial troubles, that money goes away next year, Boutis said. He hopes these improvements will make it easier to replace that lost funding.
Teachers who bring their students to Glen Helen each year say it is hard to overstate how much children look forward to their stay. About 2,300 students attend either two- or four-day camps each school year, and nearly 700 attend summer camps.
“It`s a rite of passage,” said Beth Bennett, a science teacher at E.D. Smith Elementary School in Oakwood, near Dayton. On her eighth annual trip, she stayed at the camp with Andrew and his classmates for two days last week. “The classroom is great, but when you put your hands in the mud and study the leaves and touch the snake, that really puts it all into context.”