10 Jun 2020 Isolated School Kids Soar with FGCU’s Wings of Hope Program
When the COVID-19 crisis closed schools throughout Southwest Florida, grade school students and their families were suddenly thrust into the unknown as they followed social-distancing guidelines and sheltered at home.
But Wings of Hope, an environmental education program at Florida Gulf Coast University designed to help fourth and fifth graders soar when it comes to learning about the region’s natural wonders and wildlife, coordinated with area teachers to aid in their distance learning efforts and distribute a booklet online titled, I Spy Nature at My Home Habitat! Teachers used the FGCU at-home workbook to engage elementary school students and families with a fun and educational activity.
“We encouraged teachers to have students and families, including grandparents, download the booklet and observe the environment in their backyards, noting what they find, and then connect with each other by phone or video chat to compare notes and make it a shared family experience,” says Ricky Pires the FGCU program director, whom the kids affectionately call Mrs. Ricky and who developed the teaching booklet along with Ann Godsea, program coordinator and education director.
Every school year, the university program educates more than 5,000 4th and 5th graders from Collier and Lee counties, focusing on the endangered Florida panther as well as other Florida habitats and wildlife.
But the learning doesn’t stop there – beyond the elementary school students, more than 450 FGCU students assist Wings of Hope via their environmental humanities class, a part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Intergraded Studies curriculum and service learning.
Seeking to build bridges of hope for wildlife and the natural world with education, research and awareness, the program brings school children to campus to learn in a specially designed Florida panther classroom in the Fall. That’s complemented each Spring with an educational hiking adventure through the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed marsh trails, a Florida panther habitat.
“Students’ exposure to our natural habitat is crucial to their understanding of it, because 80 percent of the kids we take on the hike have never been on a hiking trail before,” Mrs. Ricky says. “And to see their enjoyment and their learning about the natural world is amazing. They love it.”
Wings of Hope collaborates with numerous local, state and national wildlife and environmental agencies, and Mrs. Ricky says a big favorite among the young “panther posse” is seeing photos of the Florida panther captured with a network of motion-sensor cameras that the children themselves help purchase through a “Pennies for Panthers” program at their schools.
“Three or four times a year we distribute the photos to the schools, and the kids love seeing them,” she says. “They’ve become really passionate about the Florida panther and interested in its survival. They share the photos with their families, so we’re also educating more than 12,000 adults every year as well.”
The COVID-19 crisis has created budgetary challenges during these trying times, and Mrs. Ricky emphasizes the importance of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s grant support in helping ensure the educational Wings of Hope program for thousands of school children remains strong, with vital funding for needed school bus transportation and science journals the children use to take notes during their nature hikes.
“The foundation’s support has been fantastic, and we’re so thankful,” she says. “We’ve had to cancel more than a dozen hiking trips with the kids, so the foundation removed restrictions on the grant to give us more flexibility and be prepared when we’re able to resume that aspect of the program. Their responsiveness has been wonderful.”
For more information about Wings of Hope, please call Ricky Pires at 239-777-1108 or email [email protected].
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $7.7 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $134.9 million, it has provided $85 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. The Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are now located in the historic ACL Train Depot at Collaboratory in downtown Fort Myers, with a satellite office located in LaBelle (Hendry County). For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit www.floridacommunity.com