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Nature and Nurture

How Fresh Air Family is creating a generation of environmentalists

Verna Gates claims she was born with too much energy, and her professional and community work proves it. When she was a successful journalist — which she did for more than 35 years, working for high-profile outlets such as CNN, Times and Reuters — the Birmingham native still managed to devote her attention to numerous interests. One afternoon, during a 12-year tenure serving as president of the Alabama Wildflower Society’s Birmingham chapter, Gates “took a look around and realized she was one of the youngest people in the organization.” This initially troubled her  . . . then later, inspired her.  “I wanted to engage children and families with the outdoors,” she says. 

In 2006, this goal resulted in Fresh Air Family, a nonprofit introducing kids and families to the wonders of nature through weekend adventures, after-school programs, school field trips and an award-winning science camp. The flagship program, Gross Out Camp, has grown exponentially since then — and with good reason: kids love to explore the world and make discoveries that, in Gates’ view, will be with them all their lives. 

“If it’s icky, sticky, stinky or gross, kids love it. We are putting children back into their native habitat,” she says.

Named for potentially “gross” things in hands-on field biology, Gross Out Camp helps kids navigate a world outside, where bugs and plants hold mystery and allure. Each camp accepts 20 children max, and specialized instructors allow campers to guide the day based on interests. “Whatever they find is what they learn about,” Gates explains. “If they find a salamander, we focus on that for as long as they’re interested in discussing it.”

In Gates’ view, this flexible itinerary is a primary reason kids have clamored for more Gross Out Camps – not to mention the bonus of using problem-solving skills. Fishing, a camp favorite, is not accomplished with artificial lures and a traditional pole, for example. Rather, kids are tasked with finding worms or insects and using sticks to catch fish “Huck Finn style,” as Gates affectionately calls it. 

“We’re all hands-on,” she says. “We allow no electronics, not even toys. The old way we used to raise children is the best way to develop the brain— to let them go out, explore and be curious.”

In 2022, more than 2,000 children attended 54 Gross Out Camps and Gross Out programs, a number Gates never fathomed, but the sky remains the limit. The organization was just awarded the prestigious Alabama State Parks Eagle Award, and camps are catching on in other states, even as far-flung as upstate New York. “I’m getting calls from cities and towns all over who want the camps,” she beams. 

Still, Gates maintains that the real benefit of Gross Out Camp is showing kids the value of our environment, and maybe, just maybe, getting a few to one day take care of it.

“These are the wonder years, when they are interested in things,” she points out. “Alabama is so blessed to be number four in biodiversity nationally. It will be up to them to protect so many unique and beautiful creatures.” 

Visit freshairfamily.org. 

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An Educator’s Perspective: Amanda Clark

Birmingham native Amanda Clark serves as education director for Fresh Air Family. Much of her involvement with the nonprofit focuses on identifying college students to serve as summer camp counselors, allowing students to get real-world exposure to accompany what they learn in the classroom. “You don’t learn how to be a teacher sometimes until graduate school,” Clark notes. “Fresh Air Family gives undergrad students the unique opportunity to develop lesson plans.”

Last year, Clark began recruiting student camp counselors from Auburn University and Tuskegee and continues to work with students from UAB, Samford, Birmingham-Southern and the University of Alabama.

How it started

During her final undergraduate year at UAB, where she studied molecular biology, Clark met Verna Gates while volunteering at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. “I happened to meet Verna—she was leading a hike for kids. She asked if I wanted a summer job, and I said yes.” Within two years, Clark became Fresh Air Family’s education director.

Of her first summer working with Fresh Air Family, Clark, who as a child tended to play outside catching frogs and lizards, says, “[I] couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do my two favorite things—playing outside and learning. I just fell in love with the program and the mission. After that summer, I decided against pursuing medical school.” 

Influenced by her experiences with Fresh Air Family and, in particular, the late David Holloway, who served as senior naturalist at Camp McDowell and taught Gross Out Camp students about animals, Clark decided to pursue a PhD in general biology at Auburn, focusing on herpetology and evolutionary biology. A postdoctoral fellowship — which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and within UAB’s Mentored Experiences in Research, Instruction and Teaching (MERIT) program — brought Clark back to Birmingham.

How you can help 

“We push the boundaries of experiential learning. Participants build a relationship with nature at an educational, steward and even a spiritual level," says Clark.

“You may work at a desk, but your skill sets, hobbies, passions, weekend pursuits and past studies can greatly enrich the camp experience for students. Maybe you are a fisherman. Well, we make our own fishing poles and would love for you to share your fish identifying knowledge with our students! Can you identify wildflowers or butterflies or snakes or trees? These are all skill sets we can use at Fresh Air Family," she emphasizes.

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From camper to counselor: Claire Merkle

Homewood’s Claire Merkle first attended Fresh Air Family’s Gross Out Camp in 4th grade. Now a college freshman studying math at Birmingham-Southern, Merkle will work (again) as a full-fledged counselor this summer. “Being a counselor is the most fun job ever,” she enthuses, noting she will work 10 weeks this year. Merkle even met her best friend at Gross Out Camp while working as a counselor.

She recalls her first years as a camper with fondness. “We learned about decomposers; we caught crayfish and learned about all sorts of animals,” she reminisces. Even now, as a counselor, Merkle looks forward to the weekly expert animal shows, which, in past years, have included hairless guinea pigs, snakes, turtles and rabbits.

“A lot of places say ‘don’t dig in the dirt’ but here, it is encouraged!” Merkle laughs. “Gross Out Camp allows kids the space to be free and actually engage with nature instead of tuning it out.” 

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Parental Perspective: Meet the Kellys

Julie and Paul Kelly’s two sons, Owen (13) and Gibson (9), will be attending Gross Out Camp for the fourth time this summer. When most local camps shut down during Covid, Fresh Air Family kept Gross Out Camp open. “I asked Verna if my kids could attend camp every week, and, since that first summer, they’ve spent 8 out of 10 weeks each summer at Gross Out Camp! They absolutely love it!” says Julie. 
 
The Kelly kids have participated in both the Vulcan Park and Museum location and Trussville on the Cahaba. This year, they will also attend camp at Oak Mountain State Park to add additional variety to their explorations. As older attendees, they are now considered counselors-in-training.

“We love it because they are outside and active, and you know they aren’t sitting around twiddling their thumbs. They learn about animals and how to spot things in nature. They fish, play in the river and just get to be kids,” Julie adds.

The Kelly boys have recruited friends and even family from south Alabama to participate in Gross Out Camp. Their new knowledge acquired over the past summers—especially the live animal shows provided by Dr. Matt Brown who leads the Trussville camp location—has even inspired one son to consider a career in zoology or marine biology.

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