Local students learn environmental lessons at Nature Camp

Nash McDowell recalled traversing the forests in her neighborhood when she was younger, exploring the outdoors with her brother South and finding places to construct forts.

"I've always been very nature- and outdoor-oriented," said McDowell, a 10th-grade student at Lafayette High School.

Though 15-year-old McDowell has two years still left in high school, she aspires to one day become an environmentalist.

"I just want to work outside," she said.

And each summer, McDowell spends two weeks outdoors in George Washington National Forest at Nature Camp, a private, nonprofit summer camp.

No phone, she said. No television or radio or computers. Simply time spent learning about the outdoors in the outdoors.

"You have no access to anything outside of Nature Camp," she said. "It's just a little bubble."

McDowell has attended the camp the past four summers, applying each summer for scholarships to the camp offered by local garden clubs.

This year, five local clubs hope to streamline the scholarship application process for interested students. Rather than submitting multiple applications to multiple clubs, students can submit one application to any of the five clubs for scholarship consideration from all five clubs.

"We just want kids to know that this opportunity exists," said Judy Jones, a member of Virginia Master Naturalists' Historic Rivers Chapter and Williamsburg Bird Club.

In addition to those two organizations, others to participate include the Williamsburg Garden Club, Green Spring Garden Club and Virginia Native Plant Society's John Clayton Chapter. Among the five clubs, 14 $800 scholarships will be awarded for Nature Camp 2017. Of course, more scholarships are available from other local garden organizations as well.

Established in 1942 by the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs, Nature Camp is an opportunity for fifth- through 12th-grade students to study natural history and environmental science.

Students select a "major" area of study, taking classes in that subject, as well as other "minor" classes. Rest assured there's recreational time for roaming, too.

McDowell's majors over the past four years include nature writing, herpetology and geology.

Audrey Root, a Jamestown High School student, has attended Nature Camp the past five summers, nursing a longtime interest in ornithology.

"It's really great because you're out in the field. You're not in a library," Root, 15, said.

Each night, Root said, the camp presents an evening program, usually featuring a speaker. Listening to these speakers, often professionals or experts, impacted Root. They've helped her see the potential applications of what she's learned.

Root plans to study biology in college.

"Working with animals is what I really want to do, and especially birds if possible," she said.

For many of the local garden clubs, funding Nature Camp scholarships has long been a priority.

"The SOLs don't include all of this," said Marget Bradenham, a Green Spring Garden Club member. "A child can go to Nature Camp, and if they are interested in bugs, they can really learn about bugs."

Registration for Nature Camp opens Jan. 23, 2017, and admission is not guaranteed. Scholarship application through the five mentioned clubs opens Oct. 3, and applications must be postmarked by Oct. 31.

"I see it as an opportunity to touch kids who will impact our (environmental) future," Jones said.

For McDowell, Nature Camp is as much about the present moment as it is about the future.

"It's a place of wholeness and tranquility and kindness, and people don't understand that," McDowell said. "Once you're there, you get it."

"Once you go," she said, "you're hooked."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

For more information

Nature Camp sessions and applications, visit naturecamp.net.

Scholarships or to apply, visit claytonvnps.org, historicrivers.org, greenspringgardenclub.org, williamsburgbirdclub.org or gcvirginia.org/main/club-details/williamsburg.

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