Generations of students have trekked the wooded trails of Blandford Nature Center, explored its mucky frog pond and plant-rich meadows, and learned about the ways of owls and turtles in its educational programs. For many, it has been a wondrous introduction to the natural world in the heart of Grand Rapids.
Now area children’s experience will be further enriched with the opening of the Mary Jane Dockeray Visitor Center, an 11,000-square-foot, $3.3 million facility celebrating its grand opening Saturday – Earth Day, appropriately enough.
Sarah Chertos couldn’t be more excited for the students who will come there. She was once one of them, a city kid from Northeast Grand Rapids who now is an environmental educator for students from schools throughout Kent County.
|A New Day for Blandford
What: Grand opening of the Mary Jane Dockeray Visitor Center, 1715 Hillburn Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
When: Saturday, April 22; ribbon-cutting at 1:30 p.m. and tours until 3 p.m.
Funding Campaign: $10.3 million, including $3.3 million for new visitor center and $7 million for endowment; gifts still being accepted
Major donors: The Wege Foundation, $3 million; The Meijer Foundation, $1 million; Mary Jane Dockeray estate, $1.6 million
“I would hope they feel like this is a place where they can safely explore their senses and their curiosity,” said Chertos, a Creston High graduate. She grew up wary of nature, but teaches her students to think differently about it through Blandford’s soaring hawks and rustling trees.
“I want them to love it,” Chertos said of the 143-acre nonprofit nature center. “I want them to think it’s beautiful. I want them to feel thankful … like it’s almost a gift for them.”
The spacious new visitor center is a kind of gift to the community – and from the community. It’s supported by nearly 500 donations to a $10.3 million funding campaign, which recently passed the $10 million mark. Gifts range from $15 to more than $1 million, and from foundations to far-flung graduates of Blandford School, the nearby Grand Rapids Public Schools program for sixth-graders.
“What we’ve found in this campaign is the community has been waiting for us to ask for their support,” said Jason Meyer, Blandford Nature Center president and CEO.
New Ways to Learn About Nature
The new center means new opportunities for students to learn about nature.
Along with a remodeling of the former visitor center, now called the Peter Wege Environmental Education Center for classroom use, Blandford will triple its capacity for student groups and the community, said Corey Turner, director of development.
New possibilities for the future also come with the recent acquisition of the 121-acre Highlands Golf Club, a joint venture with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. Blandford will be seeking input from the public for best uses of the property, Turner said: “We’re really looking to the community to decide what we can do there.”
Demand has been growing over the past five years from Kent County schools to visit Blandford, which serves about 12,000 pre-K and elementary students per year. Meyer said he wouldn’t be surprised to see that number grow to at least 15,000 this year — and more in future years — thanks to the new facilities, a doubling of staff and growing budget.
It all means expanded student programs such as field trips, consulting with schools for environmental education and science-based programs for all GRPS first- and third-graders. Students visit Blandford Farm, frolic in natural “playscapes” and study native Michigan plants in its meadows.
It’s an ongoing outdoor classroom for students from GRPS’ Blandford School and C.A. Frost Environmental Academy. Others come from urban districts like Godfrey-Lee as well as suburban Forest Hills, Kenowa Hills and Grandville.
The visitor center includes two new major learning places soon to be teaming with children.
The Wildlife Education Center brings creatures formerly tucked into a cramped space in the old center into a prominent interpretive area just off the entrance. There students can learn about native Michigan animals, food chains and see a barred owl and a bunny up close.
Then there’s the Wet Lab, a room that students can traipse into straight from a nearby pond, lugging buckets of weeds and water life to study under microscopes. They’ll be able to peer at invertebrates and analyze water quality without fear of muddying the floor.
“Being able to utilize these two spaces together will be a great asset,” Turner said. For instance, after learning about how and what owls eat, students can head into the lab to dissect owl pellets and see for themselves what they ate.
From Small Beginnings, Big Impact
There’s no telling what a difference the place could make for students, said Meyer, whose visit to a nature center as a youth led to his becoming an environmental educator. “Now we have the opportunity to think about how we can make a bigger impact,” Meyer said.
Blandford’s founder, Mary Jane Dockeray, hopes it makes a very big impact indeed. She played in these woods as a child when Blandford was a farm. After becoming a nature lecturer for the Grand Rapids Public Museum in 1949, she convinced the Blandford family to donate 17 acres, then as curator helped open the original visitor center in 1968 and acquire more acreage.
Now she looks around at the visitor center named after her, and marvels.
“It’s beyond anything I would ever imagine,” she said. “This whole world of Blandford Nature Center has just blown up like leavened bread.
“It’s so exciting. I can’t take it all in.”