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Neil Smith provides youngsters with free wildlife lessons

Visitor Services Specialist Michelle Garcia conducting a Q&A with her "friends" from Lincoln Elementary in Pella. Garcia strongly advocates all schools take advantage of their free learning opportunities.
Visitor Services Specialist Michelle Garcia conducting a Q&A with her "friends" from Lincoln Elementary in Pella. Garcia strongly advocates all schools take advantage of their free learning opportunities.

Neil Smith Wildlife Refuge encompasses 5,600 acres of natural Iowa habitation that is located just outside Prairie City.

Visitors can get up close with bison and elk, see a show at the puppet theatre, adventure on one of the four hiking trails, and educate themselves on the prairie and wildlife at the Prairie Learning Center.

Visiting NSWR is both free and educational, and visitor services specialist Michelle Garcia encourages all schools to come out, no matter the season or weather conditions outside.

“Today we are doing our rainy day plan,” Garcia said. “Normally, we have kids outside, but we can’t when it’s thundering and lighting. (When outside) we do all sorts of investigations. We look at birds, plants and animals and we have a whole curriculum for each grade level, K through fifth grade.”

For each grade level, NSWR provides three lessons per season. In the wintertime, students may trek out in snowshoes, in the spring they may plant seeds and, in the summer, they may help find and study insects.

Garcia wants to emphasize that attending the lessons and visiting the NSWR learning center is free, but teachers should plan on scheduling trips in advance.

“We fill up really quickly,” Garcia said. “If they wanted to go on a fall field trip, then they would have to call in August.”

One of the best ways teachers and schools can ensure field trip availability is through becoming a NSWR partner.

“In order to be a partner school, that means that every grade (in the school) has to come out here at least once a year, but more than likely each grade will come out here twice a year,” Garcia said. “We have a non-profit friends group and they pay for the busing for our partner schools. So not only is it free for the partner schools to come out here, but the busing is covered.”

Garcia said the partner school program was created so the kids’ knowledge would build over the years. As they advance in grade, the curriculum at NSWR advances with them.

While it is free for all schools to attend, partner schools get scheduling priority.

The other partnership option is the partner teacher program, which also provides scheduling priority.

“To be a partner teacher, you have to take one of our teacher workshops,” Garcia said. “June 12th and 13th we will have a two-day teacher workshop that’s free to attend. It’s open to teachers and other professionals. Teachers can also earn license renewal credit by attending. Once they come out for that workshop, then they get priority scheduling again.”

Jim Oliver recently brought his second graders from Lincoln Elementary in Pella out to NSWR for their second field trip of the year. The Pella Community School District is a partner with NSWR.

“All of us (Lincoln Elementary classes) come here twice a year, and hopefully three times, because it would really be fun in the winter time,” Oliver said. “All these great resources here and it’s a place for the kids to be next to nature. We’re lucky to have this really close to us.”

As a frequent visitor, Oliver praised Garcia on her professionalism and said that she had a special bond with the kids.

When you observe Garcia with the kids, she never raises her voice, is very enthusiastic and treats the kids as equals and calls them “friend.”

“Because they are my friends,” Garcia said.

On rainy days, Garcia has several activities ready for her friends. She conducts a Q&A session, reads them an educational story, sets up an educational game and even has lunch scheduled. She then has two more activities lined up before, what she describes as, “that sad moment, friends when you leave me to go back to school.”

While that sad moment had not yet occurred, the kids proved they were paying attention to the lessons Garcia was teaching them.

“Well, we learned about Bison and their bones can be used for and what their skin can be used for,” second grader Josephine Baker said. “I’m having fun.”
“(I learned) about animals and how the cycle of rain goes around,” fellow second grader Ezekiel Nelson said. “I like (NSWR) because I like to be outside and I like to find out what is new about outside.”

Garcia is hopeful that the lessons kids learn at NSWR carry on throughout life, and that more schools take advantage of the refuge’s services.

“This is a real hands-on way to learn that they have a role in taking care of the prairie and environment,” Garcia said.

Staff Writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641)-792-3121 Ext. 426 or

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