Blue Sky Fund Students prepare chocolate pancakes during a camping trip in October at the Rice Rivers Center. Blue Sky Fund and Rice Rivers Center have collaborated to help Richmond's youth explore the outdoors and learn environmental science. <br>Contributed photos courtesy Blue Sky Fund

Students in Richmond Public Schools experience the outdoors through Rice Rivers Center partnership with local nonprofit

Rice Rivers Center and the nonprofit Blue Sky Fund help students camp, paddle and explore the river for the first time.

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Many adolescents who have spent their lives in Richmond’s high-poverty areas are not able to explore the natural wonders this river city and surrounding areas have to offer. Lack of transportation, money and time are the main barriers of access to the natural world for low-income families.

VCU Rice Rivers Center aims to get more kids outside despite the obstacles through a collaboration with the Richmond-based nonprofit Blue Sky Fund.

Rice Rivers Center is one of multiple sites throughout the state used by Blue Sky Fund for weekend, school-day and after-school programs.

The center is a nearly 500-acre environmental research facility located in Charles City County along the James River, which makes it an invaluable resource for Blue Sky Fund youth programs. Blue Sky Fund takes Richmond Public Schools students to the center to receive real-world environmental science instruction and to experience activities such as camping, volunteering and canoeing on the river.

Blue Sky Fund students canoe on the James at the Rice Rivers Center in October.
Blue Sky Fund students canoe on the James at the Rice Rivers Center in October.

Gregory Garman, Ph.D., director of the Rice Rivers Center, said the goal of the partnership is to foster in Blue Sky students a lifelong interest in the outdoors.

“In many cases, the Blue Sky Fund students have spent very little time in the natural environment and haven’t really experienced the woods, wetlands and waters that make up the center,” Garman said. “Through our partnership with this incredible nonprofit, I want these students to gain a level of comfort with, interest in and eventually excitement about being in the great outdoors. That will be the first step toward environmental literacy.”

This spring, as part of its Explorers program, Blue Sky Fund will take a group of fourth-graders to the center for environmental science field investigations tied to Standards of Learning testing objectives. The students will spend part of the day meeting the center’s researchers. David Kunnen, executive director of the Blue Sky Fund, said interacting with scientists could inspire career and education planning.

“The ability to see people working and bringing science to life is one of the unique things the center offers,” Kunnen said. “Not everyone has on a white lab coat in a room full of beakers; science looks a lot of different ways. It’s also especially important for our girls to see women out doing that kind of work on the river.”

Blue Sky Fund students camp at Rice Rivers Center.
Blue Sky Fund students camp at Rice Rivers Center.

Students in Blue Sky Fund’s Outdoor Adventure Clubs will volunteer for the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program, which works to restore and preserve oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They will bag oyster shells to be placed on the bottom of waterways to create a substrate for sanctuary oyster reefs. The shells will then be seeded with juvenile oysters called spat.

Ryan Hamlet, Adventure Program manager for Blue Sky Fund, said the activity reinforces previous lessons about conservation. Last November, the students painted a storm drain near Blue Sky Fund’s Church Hill office to remind passers-by that everything that goes into the drains is released into the James River, and can potentially be harmful to the waterway. The work was a spin on a Richmond Department of Public Works storm drain art initiative.

“The students will have learned about the importance of restoring, rebuilding and preserving waterways,” Hamlet said. “It should be a well-rounded educational experience that connected key things for them.”

High school students in Blue Sky Fund’s Outdoor Leadership Institute and Blue Sky Fund volunteers will eventually assist in clearing educational trails at the center.

Not everyone has on a white lab coat in a room full of beakers; science looks a lot of different ways.

Last October, seven seventh-graders from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School camped and canoed at Rice Rivers Center. It was a one-of-a-kind experience for the students, five of whom had never camped in a tent or canoed.

The students were considerably more experienced after three canoe trips during the cool, but sunny fall weekend. They paddled through wetlands restored by Rice Rivers Center researchers and across part of the James River. At night, glow sticks, stars and the Orionid Meteor shower, which is visible every October, lit the way as they paddled. The next day they devoured a breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes.

Hamlet said Rice Rivers Center is the perfect place for a few hours of sunlight or long weekends in the wilderness.

“It’s a beautiful location that is removed from the city, but not too far away,” Hamlet said. “A lot of our camping trips are two to three hours away into the mountains but Rice Rivers Center allows you to be close by while experiencing the woods in a pristine, natural setting.”


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