Environmental center gets upgrades, adds programs

By Sharon Wittke

It’s a win-win situation for local union carpenters and the university as work on several renovation projects begins at the Touch of Nature Environmental Center in Makanda.

Volunteers from the Carpenter’s District Council of Greater St. Louis and Vicinity, using materials and equipment provided by Southern Illinois University Carbondale, have started to fix the roof at the center’s Little Grassy Lodge and replace doors, windows and siding on other buildings, said Susan Logue, associate provost for academic administration. Touch of Nature is the university’s outdoor teaching laboratory and field site for environmental research.

In order for union carpenters to maintain their health care benefits, they must work a certain number of hours each year, Logue said. Because construction work has been scarce due to the recession, she said, some carpenters are in danger of losing their benefits.


Volunteering for projects such as repairing the lodge’s roof means the carpenters can work enough hours to keep their health care benefits, Logue said.

“The university’s physical plant is providing the materials and the supervisors,” she said, “and the journeymen are providing the labor.”

In addition to getting new siding and doors, Touch of Nature is offering a couple of new programs for spring, Alan Teska, the center’s director, said.

He said an eco-yoga retreat for women in May and a wild mushroom foray in June are two new activities open to the public.

Kate Hellgren, environmental education program coordinator, said Touch of Nature is working with the university’s Recreation Center to sponsor a weekend of yoga, meditation, hiking and campfire contemplation in early May.

“Our setting is perfect for doing something like this,” Hellgren said.

In June, she said, the center will hold a wild mushroom hunt with Joe McFarland, a biologist and mushroom expert with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.


These programs are in addition to the regular activities the center offers such as Eco U, a summer day camp for elementary school children and Underway Outdoor Adventures, which includes rock climbing, caving and backpacking expeditions, she said.

Erik Oberg, program coordinator for Underway Outdoor Adventures, said his programs teach young people confidence building skills and teamwork.

“They learn to take risks in safe places,” he said.

Teska said the center tailors programs to meet the needs of its clients. Business groups, social organizations, schools and churches use the 3,100 acre wooded retreat for a variety of purposes, he said.

Some organizations hold conferences and training seminars on the grounds, he said, while other groups use the facilities to learn more about nature and the environment.

Teska said he has 10 full-time staff members and about 25 part-time workers to manage the programs and maintain the center’s facilities. Many of the part-time workers are university students studying forestry and outdoor recreation, he said.

Hellgren said Touch of Nature operates as a cost-recovery facility, which means that for most of its programs, it charges clients the amount necessary to pay for operating costs and staff.

The center has one program which relies on grant money, Julie Eisenhouer, marketing and events coordinator, said.

She said Spectrum, a 30-day residential program that provides recreational opportunities for at-risk youth, has traditionally received funding from a grant by the Illinois Department of Human Services.

This year, however, state budget cuts are affecting the number of “camperships,” or scholarships, that will be available, Eisenhouer said.

Vicki Lang-Mendenhall, director of the center’s Camp Little Giant, said her residential facility has provided camping opportunities to people with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities since 1952.

She said it has separate areas for adults and youth up to about age 21 and gear outdoor activities to the needs and abilities of its clients.

A man who had attended Camp Little Giant for many years turned 80, she said, so the center rewrote the policy to allow him to continue camping for as long as he was able.

“We used to say we served people ages 8 to 80,” Lang-Mendenhall said. “But now we say 8 to 88.”