"Going into the woods just has an effect on people," said Agri-Construction Instructor and FFA Advisor Joe Waldorff of Elba High School.
And for the past year and a half, Waldorff and his students have worked with the support of the community to create an outdoor classroom that takes learning in the great outdoors to a whole new level.
"This community is the best. I’ve never asked for anything for the school or students that people didn’t jump in to help," Waldorff said.
And from students and teachers to administrators and local businesses, the Outdoor Exploreum on the K-12 campus of Elba City Schools is a breath of fresh air that’s much different from the gardens on many school campuses.
Spanning 27 wooded acres, Waldorff said the sizable project had a much humbler beginning than its current beauty might imply.
"I approached our then-Superintendent Dan Weeks because I wanted a forest arboretum, a place for students to study forestry and wildlife habitat. I asked if he knew of any property that could be devoted to that type of project," he said.
And from that initial conversation, Weeks suggested Waldorff team up with Elba Elementary teacher Millie McCollough to get the ball rolling.
"Millie does a lot of grant writing for our schools, and she basically told us how much money we could secure for this type of project. From there, we began planning the first phase of the Exploreum," Waldorff recalled.
The property is part of Elba City School’s 72-acre campus which was purchased in the 1990s after a second flood devastated much of the community. Set amid dense, natural woodlands, the Exploreum already boasts nearly two miles of walking trails, a butterfly garden, a pergola, a covered stage, three bridges and two aquatic studies sites among its amenities, but the list goes on and more phases of construction and cultivation lie ahead.
"We’ve really been planning as we go and the Exploreum will remain a work in progress for some time. Eventually we plan to have multiple access points to the creek running through the property, and additional bridges and some fitness training obstacles are part of the long-range plans we’ve discussed," Waldorff said.
He went on to say students have done as much of the work themselves as possible, but he emphasized the importance of community support as well.
"The City of Elba cleared the pathways for us, and a former student of mine brought his portable band saw and cut lumber for us from the trees to be removed. The students actually got to see the lumber being cut going into some of the future projects for the outdoor classroom," he explained, adding part of their long-range plans are to share the facility with others.
"Extension Environmental Educator Doyle Keasal has conducted workshops here to help our teachers see the many ways the Exploreum can be used in science, math and English classes in the high school and in lessons across academic disciplines for elementary teachers," he said.
But their plans extend beyond the Elba students as well.
"We want this to be a facility for our whole community. In the future, we hope people in our area can come to walk the trails or maybe use the space for special events, and we’d welcome other schools in our area to visit one of the largest, and certainly the most diverse, outdoor classroom I know of in Alabama," Waldorff said.
And the project is already bringing the community together in many ways, some more expected than others.
"We had a sort of open-house for people to come see what it is they’ve donated to and heard about, and we had about 180 people sign the guest book that evening," Waldorff said.
The outdoor classroom has also brought together students who normally might not have much interaction.
"Last year, we worked with the fourth-grade classes," said Elba High School Junior and FFA President Isabel Carpenter.
"We actually got to help teach them about some of the different plants we have here, and they had to collect different types of leaves from the Exploreum as part of their course work. It was a lot of fun to work with them," Carpenter said.
"We also had some agriculture lessons for them about cotton and animal production, getting them to think about how farmers feed and clothe us," added Ruthmary Merklin, FFA Vice-President.
"This year, we plan to work with those same students, now fifth graders, with some other lessons using water-testing kits," Carpenter explained.
Other high school students outside of Waldorff’s agriculture classes are making contributions to the Exploreum as well.
Bruce Sasser, now in his twenty-second year of teaching at Elba High School, had his Advanced Welding Class construct picnic tables for the Exploreum.
"I put drawings on the board, and the students figured out how much of what materials they would need, cut to what lengths, and we came out here to the shop for them to cut and assemble them. The students basically created two work stations, one group doing the sub-assembly work and another completing the assembly, similar to real-world production work," Sasser explained.
"We’ve built two tables for the outdoor classroom, and we plan to build a third," said Antwain Griffin, a senior in Sasser’s Advanced Welding Class.
"There’s some precise measurements and work involved in these tables, and the welding students are doing a great job," Waldorff praised.
But beyond the different study areas utilizing the Exploreum, Waldorff said some of the most amazing experiences so far have been the transformations he’s witnessed in students while they learn there.
"It’s been so neat to see some of our special-needs students really enjoying themselves and doing well while learning in a totally different environment. And even some students who might be troublemakers in other circumstances are totally different when you can get them outdoors in a hands-on lesson about nature," he said.
And if all this sounds impressive, that’s because it is. The site’s natural beauty as well as the cultivated plants and structures built by students and volunteers combine to create a setting rivaling any professionally developed park or nature preserve. And Waldorff said it would be impossible to thank all the people and businesses who are helping the Exploreum.
"I could talk all day and not cover all the things people have done or given to help this project. We’ve had tremendous discounts and donations from people in the community, like Windham Lumber and the Co-op here in Elba," said Waldorff.
Jon Courson, manager of Coffee County Farmers Co-op in Elba, said he and the rest of the Co-op staff are proud to help the Exploreum.
"I told Joe to give us a call anytime we could help, and he has from time to time. If we can donate materials or give them a discount, we’re happy to do what we can. Anything keeping young people interested in agriculture or the outdoors is a positive thing, for the community and for the Co-op," Courson said.
Any school or other group interested in visiting the Outdoor Exploreum can contact Terry Spicer, Joe Waldorff or Millie McCollough at Elba City Schools by calling (334) 897-3000.
Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.