Outdoor wonder is best in summer

Camp fund brings children up close with Mother Nature

06/04/2012 12:00 AM

06/09/2012 7:31 PM

Summertime is about getting dirty, finding critters under logs, spotting an adventure in your own backyard. That’s why the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund gave Charlotte Nature Museum money for 10 needy children to go to camp for a week.

The camps, for children in preschool through third grade, are at the museum that opened in 1951 in the woods near Charlotte’s Freedom Park.

It has live animal exhibits, interactive displays, a year-round butterfly pavilion, 2 acres of nature trails and “Fort Wild,” an outdoor play area.

“Adults take some of the natural backyard wonders for granted,” said museum Director Lisa Hoffman, who has been there nine years. “For kids, every day they see something in nature it’s almost a brand new experience.”

Hoffman calls it the “wonder quotient.”

The museum has green herons, blue herons, turtles, snakes, opossums and salamanders.

Most of the animals are native to the Carolinas, and some could even turn up in local backyards. Many animals were saved and wouldn’t be able to survive on their own.

They rescued a skunk from a farm with poor living conditions and an owl that had been hit by a car.

The campers learn about the animals and insects and how to care for them.

“You just get them to love (nature),” said Hoffman. “Loving it is the start.”

Hoffman remembers one young camper who had health problems. His schedule was strict and structured and his parents had to check on him regularly.

Articulate but shy, the boy developed a favorite spot by Briar Creek, where he trolled for tadpoles.

One day, he fell in the creek.

“He loved it,” said Hoffman. “He thought it was just the best day ever for him to go home muddy and dirty and say ‘I fell in the creek trying to catch tadpoles.’ You have a child who was very guarded, and then you see him in there, covered head to toe in mud. That’s a sign of success.”

Hoffman says that as a young girl, her family always hiked and took side roads. Whenever they saw something intriguing, they’d stop.

Hoffman went on to get a master’s degree in plant biology, and for a while, worked as a museum technician at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington.

“Those early seeds make a difference,” she said. “I am that person who still gets really excited about anything new I see.”

Hoffman said it’s rewarding to see where former campers and volunteers are now.

Some work at the Charlotte Nature Museum or other museums across the country. Others are college professors, architects and inventors, she says.

John Mackay, president and CEO of Discovery Place North Carolina, started as a volunteer.

Charlotte Nature Museum has “changed and impacted a lot of lives,” said Hoffman. “We laugh and just smile and say....‘We’re doing something right.’”

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