A Real Picnic: Celebrating 50 Years

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Editor’s Note: We celebrated our 50th anniversary with a public picnic on July 11, 2015. Below is an excerpt from Executive Director Mike Weilbacher’s remarks at the event.

On July 1st 1965, a young science teacher reported to his first day of work, and what was then called the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center opened its doors to the public. The science teacher’s name was Dick James, and Dick went on to build one of the country’s premier centers for environmental education, retiring almost 20 years ago in 1996. His widow Karin directed our Center’s library for many years, in its day one of the best libraries in a nature center anywhere, and his son Andy managed our property for about 15 years. Both are still great friends of the center, and always so glad to welcome them back to the house that Dick built.

But in 1965, there wasn’t yet even a definition of environmental education. Dick and his staff were helping invent a new field, merging outdoor education with nature study to teach about the new concepts that everyone was talking about then: pollution, ecology, smog, litter. There were not that many environmental nonprofits in the area in 1965, and no nature centers of this size in any major city anywhere—we were and are a first in this department.

Fast forward 50 years. We are still a pioneer in environmental education, still a leader in environmental education in the city, the region, and the state. Our new nature preschool is the first in Pennsylvania, and one of only a handful nationwide. Our wildlife clinic is the only one in a four-county region. Our environmental art program is the most ambitious of its kind in the country. Many of you might remember that we sold spring water back in the day, cars pulling up to fill their jugs with our water, which people trusted more than Schuylkill punch. So we can also claim that we invented bottle water!

The issues have changed dramatically—words like biodiversity and climate change are new. But what has not changed is that we have been connecting people to nature for 50 years now.

And that’s only because of you. You the staff assembled here. You who serve on the board of trustees. You who are volunteers—on the trails, in our gift shop and office, with our Senior Environmental Corps, with Toad Detour, with the wildlife clinic. You who are members or friends or supporters. Thank you.

Thank you for bringing us to this day, for giving us the privilege of connecting you to nature here in Philadelphia. Whether you’ve come on a walk, or volunteered counting birds, selling native plants, or healing damaged wildlife, thank you for your support. We are only here at this important juncture because of you.

And though we are celebrating our 50 years, we have our eyes firmly fixed on the future. In 25 years, in 2040, a group just like this will gather in Jubilee Grove, a new site we are planting this year, to open a time capsule that includes your predictions and thoughts about the future. What will the environment look like in 25 years? Add your voice to the time capsule so you can send a message to the year 2040.

We’re also ending our year of 50th anniversary celebrations in October with a forward-looking town meeting on the future of nature centers and environmental education. We helped invent and define the field in 1965; we’re going to help define what an environmental education center needs to be doing in the 21st century to solve the fierce environmental issues coming down the road.

We were pioneers then. Because of your support, we are still pioneering today.