El Modena sophomore Chris Harm was the docent for a Sycamore Elementary student during his class tour of the El Modena Nature Center.    

ElMo Nature Center is a labor of love

By Andie King

“I’m a teacher -- I believe in teaching,” says Jeanne Carter. And that is why, at age 79, the “retired” chemistry and science teacher continues to volunteer 30 or more hours each week, including Saturdays and summers, at the El Modena Nature Center. 

She coordinates and trains high school student docents, prepares exhibits, oversees maintenance – doing much of it on her own -- and reaches out to local businesses and organizations to grow and maintain the center. 

The Nature Center was carved out of a vacant one-acre empty space adjacent to El Modena’s baseball fields in 1972. In response to student requests to honor Earth Day, pathways and log seating areas were created. Three years later, a state grant and interest by a new conservation class allowed the pond to be dug, the stream created and fencing to shelter the oasis.

Orange Unified allots a mere $150 per year for upkeep. Carter handles the rest. 

A handful of Girl Scout Gold Award projects and 41 Boy Scout Eagle projects have transformed the garden into a learning center. Entrance signage, a stage and pathways were built. A butterfly garden was created, with an informative graphic. Walkways, bridges, hardscapes and a large variety of plants, with pertinent information, are evident. A donation of 7,000 pounds of rocks was, with the assistance of the Southern California Geological Society, grouped (sedimentary, metamorphic or igneous), placed on pedestals and labeled to create a rock walk. Through the years, Carter has tapped Orange Rotary, Kiwanis of Orange, Villa Park Rotary, and others for donations, labor and funding.

Nature Center nurtured  
The center is open to the public on the second weekend of each month. Guests may wander the paths, viewing the extensive varied California native vegetation, the pond, the strategically placed artwork, the Native American hut and murals.

In addition, elementary schools regularly tour the El Modena Nature Center, with grade-appropriate lessons and activities developed by teachers. Approximately 2,000 students from 15 schools visit the center each year, thanks to Orange Rotary donating funding for school buses. Carter teams high school student docents with elementary students, using a 1:2 ratio, the only program of its kind. The program benefits the 200 participating high school students with their resumes, teaching and mentoring, and the younger students look up to the older students – even writing “thank you” letters. The center can accommodate special education students, and pairs high school students with them one-to-one, after providing additional training.  

Native American presentations by Jacque or Jackson Nunez – in full dress, with crafts and music and lore -- are provided to some 300 third graders from five schools, courtesy of Kiwanis of Orange grants. 

El Modena students also make use of the nearby Nature Center for their curriculum in photography, art, video, and performing arts classes, as well as in AP environmental science. Next year, upperclassmen in 11 and 12th grade will use the nature center weekly for a science class, taking readings on water quality, birds, soil quality, insects or plants.

And twice each year, the entire El Modena school population attends or participates in a themed day of displays and performances by the entire arts departments, including the ElMo choir, instrumental music, ceramics, photography, performing arts, and dance.

What’s next?
Carter would like to – again? or finally? – retire. She has orchestrated the growth of the El Modena Nature Center from a small, empty plot of land to a thriving ecological center, fixing broken pipes and motivating volunteers along the way. 

The center needs funding for a director to implement the business plan that has been formulated, and for a landscaping company knowledgeable about California native plants. She foresees the need for an advisory board, a volunteer coordinator and a social media/marketing coordinator. Business partners are needed. Carter envisions signage advertising the supporters of the nature center on the fence, visible from the street. With grants and work, the El Modena Nature Center could be not only an extensive educational resource, but also a demonstration garden, nestled next to the school.

Carter is open to sponsorships, grants, work parties and suggestions to keep the El Modena Nature Center a viable part of the community. Contact jcarter@orangeusd.org; or see elmodenanaturecenter.org.

December 2018