For the past year, some home-schooled kids have benefited from a unique outdoor educational experience at a new nature center in south Salem.
Called the Addyse Lane Palagyi Nature Center and Preserve, it’s located in a wooded area on Croisan Creek Road, just south of Heath Street.
The name pays tribute to the late Addyse Lane Palagyi, who was raised in Salem and graduated from Willamette University while living in a house her father built in 1945.
“My mother always wanted to see the forest preserved. She told me, ‘You know, God isn’t creating any more forests or native land. There’s just less and less of it,’” said daughter Zsazsa Palagyi.
A visit to the center shows just how well the Palagyi legacy is preserved. What resembles a greenhouse is called the “learning center,” and houses a dozen stumps where young children are seated while attentively and enthusiastically participating in their eco lessons. But most of the learning takes place outside on the trails, the wildflower meadow and the stream bank.
Zsazsa Palagyi’s grandfather bought the land in the 1930s and was one of five original Salmeites to settle there. Her mother “valued teaching others and enabling the innate creative ability in each person to flow onto a stage or into their day-to-day living,” according to her 2019 obituary.
“Our property represents that of a kinder, gentler generation, and the land, the forests and trees provide a stillness that people need. I believe she would be thrilled to have our land dedicated to the mission of connecting people to nature,” Palagyi said.
The preserve’s founders believed it appropriate to name the Nature Center after the neighbor whose life set an example for center’s own mission. They plan to purchase additional acreage from Palagyi when the funds are secured.
Coronavirus was the stimulus for founding the center late in 2021.
The stress of isolation, seemingly endless computer learning and a lack of socialization with peers made outdoor school a safer and more stimulating alternative to indoor classrooms, and it was Loriann Schmidt’s dream to turn her three acres into an ideal learning center for young children.
Schmidt had been teaching in-person classes for Village Home, a center for home-schooled children based in Beaverton, but the agency’s Salem campus closed during the pandemic, so she decided to open an outdoor school instead.
Her first order of business was to recruit Michelle Shula as the center’s teacher and co-founder. At first, all they had was the idea and the undeveloped woods. Schmidt’s background includes teaching, theater, mathematics, chemistry and music. Shula is a master naturalist who has a degree in natural resources and has worked with the National Forest Service and in national parks.
The two women had complimentary skills, with Shula working on the business and organization side. They incorporated the center as a nonprofit in December 2021.
One of the first things the two agreed on was the dream of creating a nature center in an “urban adjacent setting” to show people all the nature that exists in their own backyards. Their goal was to provide a venue where education, adventures with families and hands on learning opportunities could be had at a single close-in site.
The Center’s land includes a spring at the top of a hill that feeds a small creek which empties into Croisan Creek. “Technically,” Loriann explained, “we’re a small watershed.”
The class ending in June was called “Eco-Warriors” and focused on different environmental problems – offering hands-on ways children can help.
A recent weekend family program concerned the three types of owls found on the property: great horned, western screech and barred owls. Participants gathered around a firepit at night where they learned about birds while listening to their calls in the surrounding woods.
Eight-year-old Sunny Shelby has attended two consecutive sessions at the Center and lives close by.
“We’re learning about trees on our own property,” his mother Simonne explained, “and Sunny has learned how to remove invasive ivy from native trees. Coming here is what gets him out of bed in the morning, and on class days he’s always in a great mood. He wasn’t like that in traditional school.”
Shelby Stryker discussed her son William, 7.
“I was always blessed to have a curious kid, but he was non-verbal until he was 3 – just after we learned he was on the (autism) spectrum. The environment was so overwhelming at his elementary school, we finally decided to pull him out last January. The staff had worked hard with him, but he became withdrawn, wouldn’t play outside with other kids, wouldn’t ask questions or do his school work,” she said. “Since beginning here, his academic curiosity has returned and he’s acting like he feels safe about learning. He’s started to ask us questions about everything he sees outside. He’s treated with respect by his peers, and the staff gives him the time he needs to communicate … I really feel like I’m getting my son back.”
The center has shown rapid growth in the 18 months since its inception. Hiking trails have been cleared, a wildflower meadow planted, a fabric “learning center” erected for a classroom. The property was certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
Several 10 week long learning sessions have been held – typically for 7 to 10-year-olds. On the last day of class in June, seven children gathered around exhibits they created about a favorite topic while their parents watched and listened.
Planned summer classes include one on birds and mammals and the other on rocks and minerals. Kids in the current session said they can hardly wait to come back.
The center will be fundraising for construction of a brick and mortar nature center which they hope to open to the public, and a grand opening ceremony is planned in the fall. To enroll children in summer programs, volunteer or donate to the Center, visit their website: https://alpnature.org/.
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