As I hope we all know, time in nature can be healing, especially when we take the time to appreciate the company we have, whether that company is human companions, or the wildlife around us.
After some challenging pandemic years, this was Belwin’s first year back to full programming. And wow – you showed up! Students returned to explore the outdoors, hikes and naturalist programs filled up quickly, new volunteers joined the team, and crowds of people came to our Bison Festival and other community events. The ability to once again gather to celebrate the ecosystems we all love was energizing and fun.
Aldo Leopold once wrote, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
So many people who come to Belwin walk away with a deepened love and respect for nature, and a new appreciation for our communities – both the people we gather with and the land and life we see when we’re surrounded by the prairie. For that, I want to thank you, our donors, volunteers, staff, and program participants. You make those experiences possible and those connections strong.
Much of Belwin's work is paying attention: to the weather, to the land, to our neighbors, and to our partners. As Mary Oliver writes, “to pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
In 2022, Belwin also paid attention to our internal practices, looking for efficiencies and improvement. An audit of our spaces and programs examined Belwin's accessibility for people of all walks of life, so we can inform future programming, communications, and infrastructure. We finished a rebrand that symbolizes our hope for the future, and we printed public trail maps for the first time — all of which made Belwin an easier place to spark connections with nature.
In addition, three new full-time staff now help Belwin better serve our community, along with expanded office space to house them. And overhauls to our accounting system, IT infrastructure, and volunteer program ensure the stability and efficiency of our operations in the coming years.
“To love a place is not enough,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer. “We must find ways to heal it.” We couldn’t agree more. At Belwin, we know it isn’t enough to simply preserve wild spaces. Many need to undergo restoration to become the vibrant, thriving ecosystems we’ve come to know at Belwin.
On top of the day to day maintenance of already restored land, in 2022, Belwin completed a three-year restoration project on Lake Edith, resulting in 130 acres of healthy habitat. We also protected 19 new acres on Valley Creek, and began initial work on a site being restored in partnership with Anishinaabe Academy.
Initial restoration is still underway at our newest public hiking area, Oxbow Trails (see photo), but that didn’t hinder a soft opening for public hiking in 2022. Access to this land, which features hardwood forest, oak savanna, and wetlands, will continue to expand in the coming years.
This year, over 2,700 people attended Frog Walks, Owl Prowls, art openings, and large events at Belwin, including the Belwin Bison Festival (see photo).
Our partnerships grew too. Most notably, students and families from Anishinabe Academy reconnected with Native heritage through field trips and restoration activities on a piece of land dedicated to their partnership. American Indian Family Center brought its community members to Belwin for traditional healing and ceremony. And FamilyMeans brought people with early onset dementia to commune with nature and each other.
Belwin also participated in 4Ground: Midwest Land Art Biennial in 2022. This collaborative effort with Franconia Sculpture Park resulted in a new sculpture at Belwin, David Sprecher's "Roaming Stone," which pays homage to the prairie, and will be visible for years to come at Tallgrass Trails.
Pictured at right: A family explores bison artifacts at the Belwin Bison Festival. Courtesy of Don Wendel.
To many of us who grew up with ready access to nature, acing a test based on third-grade science standards might seem a piece of cake. But there are many children for whom the words “shoots,” “seeds,” and “pine cones” are just ideas they’ve encountered in a textbook.
Our science standards expect children to know these terms, and sometimes, children who haven’t spent a lot of time outdoors are at a disadvantage in their science learning. But if you have the good fortune of coming to Belwin as part of your elementary science curriculum, as almost 10,000 children did in 2022, you might know a shoot from a stem, and maybe even a monarch from a swallowtail, because you saw them, touched them, experienced them.
As one student put it, “…it’s like science, but cooler.”
Photo courtesy of Belwin Outdoor Science.
Spotlight: Adaptive Outdoor Education
Since the mid-1970s, Belwin has provided adaptive outdoor education programs for children with special needs. In 2022, nearly 1,500 students came to Belwin to explore and learn through this unique program. Paved trails, various sled and stroller options, and immersive lessons all ensure that students experience nature first hand.
"There are not many other trips or activities that are made for my students, especially in the outdoors, where they are active participants. Belwin is a great interactive learning opportunity for my students with physical and cognitive impairments!”
– Andrea Smith, teacher at Bridgeview School