"What can be better than letting our kids go outside to watch the tadpoles in the pond and come back to catch them when they have become frogs?"
That's what Michele Miller said when describing how she came to work at Westmoreland Sanctuary. She was first drawn to the 56-year-old environmental preservation organization as a gardener and a hiker—and a mother interested in exposing her children to nature.
She became even more passionate about connecting kids to the outdoors while working in the West Patent Elementary School Learning Garden and outdoor classroom.
"I became keenly aware that despite our location in such a lovely area—redolent with woods and streams—many local children are not having these [outdoor nature] experiences," she said. Working parents, busy families and more structured indoor activities could be among the contributing factors to kids having fewer opportunities to "get their hands dirty," she added.
She said part of her job would be to help children understand and interpret the natural world around them and instill a desire in them to help with future environmental conservation.
Appointing Miller to the newly created position is part of Westmoreland's transformation from a "hidden gem" to a leading nature education center, said Graham Anderson, board president, who said the board saw a need to amp-up what they could offer in terms of field trips and programs that could be taken on the road.
"Public and independent schools are facing new financial pressures and the cost of the kind of programs we offer could shift from school districts to PTAs and PTOs," said Anderson, who has experience with school budgetary issues from his years of service on the Bedford Central school district board of education.
To that end, Anderson said the Westmoreland experience needed to be "updated and upgraded" in order to justify the trip for cash-strapped districts. Programs should be aligned to state curriculum standards and provide a "wow" factor to students, he added.
Miller was a good fit for the new role, he said, because of her passion for the outdoors, her experience with school gardens, her development and fundraising skills and project management experience at a variety of organizations including The Women’s Project Theatre in New York City. Miller received her doctorate from Boston University in Archaeology and has an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University in Anthropology.
For her part, Miller said all of her professional experiences will benefit the organization but her passion for nature and gardening—and motherhood—were the driving forces for her being a part of the organization.
"It's all very key to how I look at our programming, and how I hope to help shape it for the future," she said.
New enclosures providing the Sanctuary’s live animals with more natural environments have recently been completed as part of the initial phase of a multi-phase renovation plan. Other phases to be overseen by the Executive Director include a Nature Lab with a beehive display and discovery area and expanded and revised programming areas both within and outside the building. The Nature Center, located at 260 Chestnut Ridge Road, Bedford Corners, NY (914-666-8448). It is open to the public from 9 to 5 Monday to Friday and 10:30 to 5 on Sundays. Holiday schedules may vary. Trails are open dawn to dusk.