CVNP environmental education center spruces up growing grounds, cultivates plant-based curriculum and training

by Judy Stringer                                           

A gardening area at the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center is coming back to life thanks to a local couple’s $30,000 donation.

Hudson residents Charlie and April Walton provided funds to rebuild CVEEC’s 40-year-old Learning Garden and Hoop House, which had fallen victim to COVID-19, according to January Miller, the center’s vice president of education.

“During the pandemic, the Environmental Education Center was shut down just like so many other places,” Miller explained, “and when programming resumed, the Learning Garden and Hoop House had gone dormant. But we really wanted to get them up and running again because this is the space where we can teach about where food comes from, and have culinary experiences for students, both cooking and just tasting something right out of the garden.”

Miller said CVEEC, a 500-acre land lab located off Oak Hill Road in Peninsula, hosts “thousands” of students a year with both day and overnight, multi-day programs. The 128-bed campus is home to two dormitories, two dining halls and two classroom buildings, including the November Lodge. It is co-managed by the nonprofit Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the National Park Service.

The center’s curriculum includes hands-on lessons about ecosystems, biodiversity, geology, conservation, soil health, plant life and the like.

“Whatever they are learning about in science at school, they can learn here. And, we also teach the history of the Ohio & Erie Canal Way and the people who lived around it,” Miller said.

CVEEC’s students hail from Northeast Ohio for the most part, although the center draws students from across the state and even outside of the state.

“Locally, we work hard on outreach into different communities and make sure there’s no barrier to any student or school who wants to come out here for the day or to camp,” according to Miller. “There are many schools in Cleveland and Akron, for example, where students don’t have access to a lot of nature around them, so we want to give them a great experience out here and help them feel a sense of belonging in the natural world.”

For all students, Miller added, gardening and culinary arts can be an important part of that environmental exploration.  

“Some students might come out and go on a hike or dip in the pond or visit with some animals and not feel that connection, but they might connect through food,” she explained.

The reimagined Learning Garden includes a variety of annual and perennials that students can “see, smell, touch and taste,” Miller said. It, along with the reconstructed Hoop House, will help engage the center’s guests in lessons ranging from pollinators, nutrition and wellness to regenerative agriculture and climate change.

Wheelchair accessible pathways, currently under construction, and raised garden beds will ensure students of all abilities have access to the growing grounds, which will also be used for professional development. In these cases, area teachers come onsite to learn how to fold environmental education into their school-delivered lesson plans.

“We can have 1,000s of students here every year, but if we have a few 100 teachers, that reach is going to be greatly expanded,” Miller noted.

Donor Charlie Walton said he and his wife April are longtime members and supporters of the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The couple was involved in the 2012 construction of the original Hoop House, he said, and were happy to re-engage when the need arose.

“The center has a very unique mission and value proposition,” Charlie said. “I think we can all relate to the value of getting kids – particularly urban students – out into nature and introducing them to some things that they may not be introduced to otherwise.”  ∞

A donation from Charlie and April Walton of Hudson was integral to the rebuilding of CVEEC’s Learning Garden and Hoop House. Photo courtesy of Zaina Salem.

Photo above (main): The Hoop House at the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center in Peninsula was renovated this summer and will support added programing related to farming, food and nutrition. Photo submitted.