GREEN Corp: Being Green . . . Artfully

by Dee Billia

"They don’t understand, we only have one planet!" said eleven-year-old Anna, one of a handful of young environmentalists participating in Appel Farm Summer Arts Camp’s GREEN Corps, a four-year-old program at this Southern New Jersey camp dedicated to developing and nurturing young artists of every discipline. The GREEN Corps (Get Ready for Environmental Education Now) was founded to raise awareness about the delicate balance of nature — and the challenges to the local environment — as well as global environmental concerns. Artists have always been at the forefront of social change, and so it was a very short leap to incorporate the artistic process of observation, contemplation, and creativity into an environmental program that connects young people with the natural world, and encourages them to take an active role as good stewards.

Appel Farm is located in an area surrounded by preserved land. New Jersey, one of the most densely populated states in the country, has experienced rapidly diminishing open space because of development by builders eager to provide new housing and shopping centers to the ever-growing population. Recognizing the need to protect natural resources from uncontrolled development, the state government buys land in targeted areas and retains the right to keep them in their natural state. The neighboring farms grow corn, tomatoes, peaches, apples, and other diverse types of produce that give New Jersey its name, the Garden State.

Children from across the country, and many from around the world, come to the camp to study a variety of creative arts that include music, theater, dance, visual arts, creative writing, rock music, photography, recording arts, and more. The camp philosophy has always been one of exploration and discovery, coupled with a broad view that embraces the differences found in every human being. "At Appel Farm, we cultivate the artist inside all our campers. It builds their confidence, while it enriches their hearts and minds," says Jennie Quinn, one of the camp’s directors.

Both Quinn and Cori North, the other director of the camp, have education backgrounds coupled with extensive arts experience. The summer programs reflect the structure and creativity that both bring to bear. Appel Farm configures the camp experience through "majors" and "minors," all with well-defined curriculums. Each camper chooses their "major" and two "minors," and they are encouraged to explore art forms in which they may not have prior experience. At the end of the session, work is presented during Performance Week, when the entire camp gets to view, admire, and applaud their fellow campers. The stages, dance studio, and art galleries are filled with unbounded energy and excitement, and cheers can be heard across the grounds as the performers are appreciated by their peers.

Listening and Observing

Led by counselor Kristin Samples, a number of campers selected the GREEN Corps as their "minor" during the first session of summer camp, meeting for seventy-five-minute sessions, six days a week. Samples has a B.A. in art, but has worked at environmental camps in other summer jobs, so GREEN Corps was a perfect combination of her expertise. On one day at camp, Samples led a group to a small lake on the camp property. This lake is teeming with a wide variety of flora and fauna and was also home to a family of snapping turtles sunning themselves on a log nearby. When the campers arrived at the small bridge that connects to the camp theatre on the far side of the lake, they were asked to sit down and spend the next five minutes just listening and observing.

Birds. Flutes. Saxophones. Hockey sticks. More birds. Laughter. Wind rustling the leaves. A turtle plopping off a log. What was usually in the background suddenly took center stage, and the campers were encouraged to listen to the sounds of nature and correlate them to the musical instruments that are heard daily throughout the grounds. Any artist will attest to the fact that observation is the first step in the artistic process, and Appel Farm’s curriculum asks young campers to learn this process first — trusting that their artistic product will follow.

The structured but flexible curriculum for the GREEN Corps focuses on three levels of activities and awareness: personal, local, and world-view. The campers have nature journals in which they write about what they observe and hear. They identify many of the native species of birds and create leaf rubbings.

After a second day of listening to the sounds of a summer afternoon, Samples asked the campers to describe what was different in the lake from yesterday, and what was the same. Their responses ranged from comments about the shape of the branches breaking the surface of the lake, to noticing that the level of the lake had diminished somewhat. Their responses reflected a sharpened sense of observation that had been encouraged in prior sessions. Samples also suggested that they take time to sketch some ideas for the mural they will be creating later in the summer. Eleven-year-old Jamie was intent on choosing the most beautiful butterfly from a collection of pictures that Samples brought on the walk. Five varieties of butterflies will be included in the mural that was being planned by the GREEN Corps to raise awareness about a serious threat to the country’s food supply — and the young campers were excited about creating a design that would be a lasting reminder of their summer.

Organic Gardening

Appel Farm has a one-half acre organic garden that supplements dining hall fare, and all GREEN Corps campers spend time there learning about organic gardening. Planting tomatoes, snap beans, and corn and charting the daily growth can be exciting for urban and suburban kids who have limited experience with a family garden. Duties also include pulling the weeds that grow so quickly, a part of organic gardening that is not so appealing to the amateur naturalists. "Weeding is not fun, but it makes you feel good," said fourteen-year-old Kayla. "I feel like I am helping my community." The campers were able to see and really connect with where their food comes from; for many this was a first-time experience.

Raising Awareness

Raising awareness about larger environmental concerns is also a big part of the program. Appel Farm is now an officially registered environment for Frogwatch USA, a project of the National Wildlife Federation. Scientists are counting frogs across the country to monitor their population, which is diminishing at an alarming rate. They are a "key indicator" species because they are so vulnerable to the effects of pollution. The frogs are counted in the lake twice a week. GREEN Corps campers send the results to the Federation and post the results in the dining hall. The entire camp has become engaged in the project, and other campers often give tips on their own sightings to Corps members. "I like to focus on the positive," said Samples. "Asking what we can do to help gives the children a sense that they are part of the solution." The frog counting connects them to the larger world and lets them know that they can have impact — even in their own backyard.

GREEN Corps members have also become involved in a project that raises awareness about a mysterious problem known as "Colony Collapse Disorder." Scientists are sounding the alarm about the disappearance of at least one-third of the honeybee population in the United States. Without honeybees, the natural growth cycle is severely disrupted; these natural pollinators are the key to our food source, and now farmers often rent colonies of these small workers of the buzzing variety to keep their crops vital and flourishing. The cause of this kill-off on such a massive scale is not readily apparent, but some of the usual suspects, like pesticides, an inadequate food supply, and a new virus that attacks the bee’s immune system might be to blame (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2008).

The resourceful GREEN Corps members have been researching the native plant species that attract honeybees, and in front of the mural that they are designing, they will plant a garden containing many "attractors." Since Appel Farm doesn’t use pesticides on its grounds, the bees will have a natural habitat that, with any luck, will support a thriving colony. The new garden will be a happy addition to the rows of bobbing sunflowers that already line the organic garden.

GREEN Corps at More Camps

Quinn, who began the GREEN Corps program as a workshop in 2004, was a pivotal force in making this addition to the roster of programs at Appel Farm. "The workshop was so popular that we decided to add it as a minor," Quinn said. "All it takes is one person with a vision to get this started. You have to tether the program to the child’s experience, whatever that may be. For us, the artistic process was a familiar one with which our campers and staff already have experience."

Other camps that want to start a GREEN Corps should consider hiring a staff member who is very familiar with the local area to conduct an initial workshop. It is also helpful to contact local environmental agencies and conservation groups to find out about the area’s specific concerns and ask if they offer additional resources. Starting with small changes in awareness is best. Small change can reap large benefits in the long run. Projects that might be achieved in a summer session can be as simple as making signs for the camp that encourage energy conservation and recycling. Contact other camps to look at the way they structure their environmental programs. Each camp should tailor the program to its own mission and interests.

Samples hopes this program will have a lasting impact. "These children are young, and I hope this experience will affect them later in life." The process of observation and asking thought-provoking, open-ended questions was the most critical factor in engaging the campers, and one that can be applied to any situation.

Every field of study demands observation, contemplation, and creativity. For these young people, their experience in the arts allows them to view the problems and challenges in the environment through an artist’s filter and to come up with an artistic solution. For others, creative solutions may come through their own experience and interests.

Being Part of the Solution

When asked why they had chosen to be in an environmental program at an arts camp, the campers had varying responses, but all were passionate about being part of a solution, and for them, the green movement is more than trendy — these young people feel a personal responsibility for their world. They are serious about safeguarding the planet. Appel Farm, with a strong philosophy of activism, is cheering them on — showing them that through art and creativity they can be powerful advocates and ambassadors for the environment — at camp and long after they have returned home.

Five Steps to Creating a GREEN Corps at Your Camp

  1. Hire a staff person who has knowledge of your area’s habitat.
  2. Meet with the staff of your camp to see how they can support your program.
  3. Check with government agencies, like the Department of Environmental Protection, to find out what the environmental challenges are in your area.
  4. Enlist the support of local conservation groups, like the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society. They can help get groups involved in existing local projects.
  5. Start with a workshop at your camp. Set goals that are achievable such as creating a recycling program or persuading the camp management to switch to energy efficient light bulbs.

Reference
U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572 (Accessed September 2008).

Dee Billia is a dedicated arts advocate with over twenty years experience in nonprofit arts administration — primarily in the performing arts. With a successful vocal performance career that includes opera, musical theater, and sacred music, she has also served on the board of trustees of several arts organizations in New Jersey. You can contact the author at dbillia@appelfarm.org and learn more about the camp at www.AppelFarm.org.

Originally published in the 2008 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

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