December 2006
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4-H Breaks Ground on Environmental Science Ed Center

  Wesley Laird, right, presents an award to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby for his support of environmental issues and the 4-H program in Alabama.
By Alvin Benn

A year from now, Alabama youngsters will be able to learn about the environment at a unique facility in rural Shelby County.

"Unique" is a word used by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby recently when he helped to break ground on a $7 million 4-H Club Environmental Science Education Center.

"We’re at the right place at the right time," said Shelby, during remarks prior to the groundbreaking. "I’m really proud of this. It is unique for Alabama and the Southeast."

Instead of reading about the great outdoors, students who live in Alabama’s urban areas will be able to see for themselves what wildlife is all about.

Students who live in rural areas and are familiar with the woods will learn something new, too. It won’t be a rehash of what they’ve been familiar with in the past.

"We’re on the cutting edge of environmental science," said Gaines Smith, interim director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. "This is a great occasion and adds to the vision of the late 1970s when this facility was built."

Wesley Laird, left, Ed Richardson, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby and Andrew Brymer help to break ground for the $7 million 4-H environmental building in rural Shelby County.  
Shelby, Smith, Auburn University President Ed Richardson and other prominent officials took part in the groundbreaking at the Alabama 4-H Center on Lay Lake near Columbiana.

Jack Odle, chairman of the Alabama 4-H Club Foundation, said the group will use the new building to bring "national prominence to the state."

The new building, which is expected to be completed late next year, is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) facility and, as Odle proudly proclaimed, "will be an example of sustainable awareness nationally."

"We are certainly proud that Sen. Shelby recognizes the important step Alabama 4-H is making to the youth of our state by constructing a facility like this," Odle said.

Shelby not only supported the project by showing up for the groundbreaking, he also provided thousands in federal funds to help with its construction.

The LEED Green Building rating system is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings.

LEED promotes a "whole building" approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas—human and environmental health, sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

In order to attain a gold LEED certification, "green" buildings are required to achieve a total of 39 points. The new Alabama 4-H facility will qualify for 45 points, putting it well above the minimum.

Designed by Davis Architects of Birmingham, the building will be constructed by B.L. Harbert International, also of Birmingham.

  The artist’s rendering of the $7 million environmental building that will be constructed at the 4-H Center near Columbiana.
The new facility will help teach young Alabamians as well as educators about protecting and enhancing the environment in a building totally new not only to the state but the entire Southeast region.

Richardson lauded those who pushed for the new building, saying it comes at the right time for the state.

"If we have to identify what will be some of the major social issues in this country they will come under an environmental umbrella," said Richardson. "The lack of fresh drinking water will be at the top of the list. It is a critical issue."

During his remarks at the ceremony, Richardson said one of the problems in the United States today is trying to make young people understand "the role that the environment plays."

"It’s something we take for granted today," he said, adding that "almost 10 percent of the fresh water that flows in this country flows through Alabama."

"We’ve been debating with Atlanta for years on how much water they can take from our rivers," Richardson said. "If this country is to remain economically strong, science will play an important role."

As an educator, Richardson said a key to helping the country maintain its strong economy is to teach youngsters at an early age about the importance of science.

"A center like this will help to do just that, especially for those who do not grow up in rural areas," said Richardson, a native of Pike County. "It will enable children to learn to see the relationships between clean water, air and wildlife. It has so much promise for the future and economic development of our state."

Others on the program included Opp attorney and 4-H Foundation member Wesley Laird, who served as emcee; Thomas Elliott, secretary-treasurer of the 4-H Club Foundation; Willard Bowers, vice president of environmental affairs for Alabama Power Co.; Mike Kilgore, executive director of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Lamar Nichols, assistant director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

The Environmental Science Education Center will include 17,500 square feet of interior space covering two floors and will be constructed of stone, concrete, wood, glass and steel.

A highlight of the new building will be a 1,050 square foot observation deck. It will be nestled in the treetops and will be accessible from the main floor.

There will also be two large laboratory classrooms to support the 4-H Center’s Environmental Field School along with a shared lab prep area.

The two laboratories will have direct access to the outdoors so children can explore outside and come inside to rooms filled with technical and audiovisual support. Muddy feet won’t be a problem, either, because of the way the rooms are to be constructed.

The new building will also have a large multifunction room that can accommodate 350 people as well as three seminar rooms that can be used for classes, meetings and conferences.

Another unique feature will allow the collection of rainwater from the roof in a cistern. It will then be used for the toilets throughout the building as well as for the fire protection sprinkler system.

Visual displays will include lake and land habitats. They will be situated in the corridors and lobby next to the lab areas.

The facility is being built with funds raised by the Campaign for Alabama 4-H through the Alabama 4-H Club Foundation, Inc. More than 500 corporations, foundations, organizations and individuals have supported the campaign, chipping in nearly $6 million. The campaign also supports 4-H programs statewide.

During his remarks, Smith noted that the 4-H program continues to be important in Alabama—far beyond the four words that represent the organization.

"We all know about ‘Head, Heart, Hand and Health,’ but much more goes into 4-H," he said. "It is a ‘learn by doing’ experience, a hands-on experience. We try to have a wide variety of programs."

No one in the audience prior to the groundbreaking could agree more with Smith than Andrew Brymer, who is Alabama’s 4-H President.

At the age of 17, Brymer has not grown up in a rural setting, but he didn’t hesitate when the opportunity presented itself for him to join 4-H.

"It’s helped me to become a better person," said Brymer, Jefferson Countian who spoke at the event. "I wanted to see what it was like and I couldn’t have been happier."

Brymer said 4-H has helped him improve his communication skills, especially when it came to public speaking. He said he is also involved in a variety of other 4-H projects.

For nearly a century, 4-H has been helping to shape the lives of young Alabamians, teaching skills in leadership, citizenship and how to cope with life’s pressures.

The largest youth development organization in Alabama, 4-H has nearly 100,000 members who participate in a variety of programs, projects and statewide events.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System oversees the 4-H program. Auburn and Alabama A&M University work closely together to make sure it is a success.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.