Lake Norman & Mooresville

Woman brings her work closer to her heart

When Susan Grewell of Huntersville moved to North Carolina in the 1990s, she worked at the Boeing Co. and then Murata Wiedemann, a Charlotte-based sheet metal manufacturer.

But when Wiedemann closed in 1994, Grewell decided it was time for a new focus in her work.

Drawing upon early childhood experiences in northern New Jersey, as well as the wooded beauty surrounding her home in Huntersville's Skybrook subdivision, she decided to build a business about her love of trees.

The result was a book and an elementary classroom curriculum called "ABC - Learn Your Trees with the Leaf Critters."

The book teaches kids using the Leaf Critters, which are animated leaves with names that closely match that of their home tree.

It also can serve as a curriculum for after-school programs that meets Standard Course of Study goals for math, reading, science and the visual arts.

And it encourages children to move around outside, which can help fight childhood obesity, she said.

Why is Grewell so fascinated with leaves? "Having grown up in northern New Jersey on a lot with 76 trees, I spent many a Saturday raking up after these gloriously defoliated beings," said Grewell.

"Still, trees absolutely take my breath away. In the spring, the green on their limbs is startling and vibrant with life; in the summer their shade is luxurious; in fall their color is magnificent; and in winter, they stand stationary with barren limbs lifted high against a stark gray sky in certain hope of new life."

A graphic artist by trade, Grewell, 45, spent several years developing the curriculum, with strong encouragement from her husband, Kendall. "When I first showed him the book idea, he said, 'Susan, you have to do something with that.'"

That "something" led to a program complete with T-shirts, mouse pads and water containers, as well as the written and media presentations.

The Leaf Critters curriculum uses coloring books and video presentations to teach five different Leaf Critters characters each year. Geography, botany, visual arts and oral presentations are incorporated into the lessons.

Students are encouraged to interact with nature and to "See the Tree" that the Leaf Critter calls home. By encouraging students to discover trees, it also directs them to the outdoors. This gets them involved with nature, rather than being inside with just 2-D images.

It has already been used by several Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops as well as some summer camps.

Besides being mom for three boys age 15, 12 and 7, she spends a good part of her days perfecting the program, hoping more schools will adopt her curriculum. So far, parts of her curriculum have been used by Pine Lake Prep in Mooresville as an after-school program and by Horizons Unlimited, an Environmental Education Center in Rowan County, in a summer camp. She said one school district in the area has applied for a grant to use the entire program.Make no mistake: Grewell wants her program to be a money-maker. The price varies, depending on scope of the project. But generally, teachers guides run $3.50 apiece and the learning packs up to $10 per student.

"Leaf Critters is a for-profit business, but it has a mission - to connect children to trees and nature in order to renew the earth and its inhabitants," she said.

She recently made a presentation at the 2011 North American Association of Environmental Educations national conference held in Raleigh, and last year, Leaf Critters was part of the UNC Charlotte Arbor Day Literacy Program.

"As a child, there were two images about the environment that are forever rooted in my psyche - the Crying American Indian from the Keep America Beautiful campaign and Smokey the Bear," she said.

"I feel it is so important that our children understand that Leaf Critters are important to soil conservation. They cannot be taken for granted."