One of Jeannette Henderson's most vivid memories of the first Wetlands and Woodlands camps held at Calvin College is of finding a mess of garter snakes behind the refrigerator in the gatehouse.
"It was warm behind the refrigerator, so they liked to hang out there," Henderson said. "I was cleaning up the gatehouse, setting up for camp ... and got the surprise of my life. I ran out and drove back to the preserve house, and I was not going back until somebody got rid of the snakes-which was kind of embarrassing.
"After that, we got used to going in every morning, checking behind the refrigerator and sweeping the snakes out," she said, chuckling.
Henderson has fond memories of the camps-where Grand Rapids-area children learn about plants, insects and animal habitats, based in Calvin's 90-acre Ecosystem Preserve-because she helped to create them in the summer of 2000 as a sophomore and preserve intern. "The idea was that we have a beautiful preserve here, and we wanted to share God's creation with children in the Calvin community and the greater Grand Rapids community," she said.
Henderson's memories of the tiny gatehouse, which served as the original camp headquarters, are not as fond. "If you've ever been to the gatehouse, it's about the size of your office," she said wryly.
The first headquarters was not only small, recalled Kate Block '06, it was ill-equipped. "They dropped the kids off at the gatehouse, and we pretty much ran the whole program out of that little gatehouse," said Block, who also taught the early Wetlands and Woodlands camps. "We would have to get all of our supplies from the preserve house. We would drive all of that over there."
There was no room for children to do crafts in the gatehouse, nor did the tiny brick building have restrooms. "Imagine having 20 kindergartners with you on the trail, and one girl yells, 'I have to go to the bathroom!' At that time, the closest bathroom was the Fine Arts Center, and you're on the back side of the trail," Henderson said.
Through generous donations from Thelma Venema '61 and Helen Bunker, a longtime neighbor and friend of the college, the Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center was completed in 2004. Both women were drawn to the project because of their love for the natural world and the opportunity to share that love with children and adults. In the Bunker Center, a striking Discovery Place, with floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooks the Ecosystem pond and hosts thousands of children and visitors each year.
"When we moved to the Bunker . we had space," Block said. "It was safer, it was more spacious and we had our supplies available. And it was really, really helpful, especially when we had rain."
Indeed, the Bunker Center, the only completed component of the Campaign for Calvin College, anchors all the programming at the preserve: lecture series, conferences, school visits, Calvin biology classes, science camps, meetings of environmental groups, and visits by area nature lovers eager to walk the trails.
"The Bunker Interpretive Center has provided a roof over our heads, and it's a big advantage," said Randy Van Dragt, Calvin biology professor and preserve director. "Our programs have attracted good attendance from the local community and thereby increased the visibility of Calvin and the preserve."
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