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June 12, 2002

Interpretive Center On Horizon
Ecosystem Preserve

A new interpretive center at Calvin College is intended to benefit the community. So it's appropriate that almost half of the center's cost has already been raised thanks to a member of the community and a community foundation.

Calvin's new ecosystem interpretive center will be a $2 million facility, complete with classroom, interactive displays and more. Grand Rapids resident Helen Bunker, who, with her deceased husband Vincent, lived for 40 years near the 90-acre Ecosystem Preserve, has donated $750,000 to the project. And the Grand Rapids Community Foundation just announced a $100,000 gift to the effort.

Both donors resonate with Calvin's desire to preserve, in the midst of a busy suburban environment, the measure of peace and tranquility that can be found in the Ecosystem Preserve's woods, ponds and wetlands.

“We all share the same planet, we all draw on the same resources and we all have the same opportunities to impact it,” says Randy Van Dragt, a Calvin biology professor and director of the preserve. “What better thing to share with students than the natural world?”

The natural world of the Preserve is home to over 100 species of birds, almost 30 species of mammals, nine species of amphibians, six reptile species and three fish species. A visit to the Preserve might turn up everything from deer to fox to frogs to snakes.

That unspoiled environment in the midst of the city was a big factor in the Grand Rapids Community Foundation grant, which comes from the Charles Evenson Fund for the Environment. Evenson, an avid outdoorsman who treasured Michigan's land, water and wildlife, established the fund to help preserve the natural environment for future generations. "Even after his death, Mr. Evenson is still helping to preserve the land he loved through this fund," says Diana Sieger, Grand Rapids Community Foundation president.

Calvin's Ecosystem Preserve has four goals: 1) to preserve the complex of habitats (the ecosystem) on the site; 2) to provide a scientific resource for study by regular college classes, as well as for individual research; 3) to provide a passive recreational resource for the College community; and 4) to provide an educational resource for the larger community of Grand Rapids.

As a child, growing up in Baltimore, Md., Helen Bunker would spend summers at a camp in Pennsylvania, near upstate New York. There she progressed from an eager, young student to a sage summer counselor, dispensing her years of woodlands wisdom to the next class of campers.

Click to EnlargeNow, some sixty years later Bunker is again lending a hand to young boys and girls, eager to learn about the world around them, with her gift of $750,000 for an interpretive center (to be called the Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center) at Calvin's 90-acre ecosystem preserve.

There's a fitting symmetry to the gift says the plain-spoken Bunker, who cares not a whit about her name on the building but is attentive to what the building brings to the preserve.

"If the name falls off, that's okay," she says with a hearty laugh. "But the Center itself will be there to teach them (the children) about what's outside, about the environment, about all the fun they can have and how to enjoy nature and be kind to it. That's what's important to me."

It's a philosophy that served Helen and her husband Vincent well over the years.

Vincent, an engineer, was a keen fisherman, a pursuit of which Helen says (in positive terms): "It's just being out." And together, for many years, the two tended to their flower gardens at a pretty red-brick ranch house on Lake Drive, in the shadows of the preserve, a house they built in 1959 when that neighborhood was the country and Calvin was not yet established as a neighbor. After Vincent died she continued to nurture his beds, saying in straight-forward fashion: "As long as you were going to keep the place you had to keep it up."

These days Calvin keeps the place up. Helen donated the house and property to the college a few years back as she decided to move into a retirement community at which she'd worked as a volunteer for 15 years. There she continues to lend a hand as volunteer, even while chuckling about the early bedtime of many of her fellow residents (she stays up listening to sports on the radio, including the dulcimer tones of Ernie Harwell, the legendary Tigers' announcer and her favorite sports man).

She gets back to the old neighborhood now and then, but says, for the most part, it's too busy now. The city has grown around her old homestead. Except for the preserve, what she calls "that nice spot." A spot that, thanks to Helen and Vincent, will soon become even a little bit nicer.

It is this final goal that will be most enhanced by the new building, to be known as the Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center. Immediately it will allow Calvin to double the programs offered to local schools (already some 2,000 children from 35-40 local schools visit the Preserve in the fall and spring).

The Bunker Interpretive Center will contain:

  • a classroom/auditorium with seating for 60 and a wall-to-wall windowed overlook on the preserve
  • a classroom/laboratory for 24 students
  • a workroom/conference room for 14-16 volunteers
  • display spaces

All of this will enable Calvin to provide year-round environmental education and will allow Calvin to do more programming for the general public. Currently schools are limited to activities in the Preserve because of the weather. They have a short window in October and November and another in April and May.

The new Center will allow for hands-on learning (a key focus and need according to local K-8 science teachers) from September through May. It also will allow for expansion of Calvin's summer camps program in the Preserve. And it will be the setting for a new two-week summer course in outdoor education for local school teachers (to be led by Calvin faculty) that will run concurrently with the summer camps.

Calvin also plans to reach out beyond its students in putting together a cadre of Center volunteers. While it will continue to use students from such disciplines as education, biology and environmental studies, it also will reach out to adult volunteers, including seniors. The new Center will be the base of operations for this new corps of volunteers.

Finally the new Interpretive Center will be a plus for casual visitors to the Preserve with its educational and historical displays, its staffed information station and its restrooms!

Construction will begin in 2002-2003 and enhanced programming will begin in 2003-2004.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)