Kids outdoor education expo back and growing

Poynette, Wis. — Mark Labarbera, founder of the Midwest Outdoor Heritage Education Expo (MOHEE) was thrilled at the turnout at this year’s Expo that served more than 2,340 elementary school students from around southern Wisconsin May 18-19.

“We’re up more than 20 percent from last year,” he said with big smile. “Add in the 400 or more teachers and chaperones, and it was a great crowd.”

The 500-acre Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Mackenzie Center at Poynette serves as a prime location for the event. With several permanent and part-time DNR staff assigned to the facility as caretakers of the diverse and expansive education center, there is ample opportunity for kids to explore and experience any number of  outdoor activities.

Special education teachers Luanne Schambow and Robin Lange brought several of their students from Southwestern Elementary in Hazel Green.

“The kids really like the interactive activities and the hands on events,” said Schambow. The BB gun shoot was the most popular station for her students, she said. “They’re free to do things at their leisure. They can go back to the things that they like.

The kids were totally absorbed in the event, dashing about from one display to another. In addition to exuberance with the many fun activities, the teachable moments in natural resource protection were clearly evident. Hannah, a Southwestern fifth grader, said she liked being outside with her friends, but also explained quite skillfully the problem of invasive species in our waterways.

“They have to clean the boats because the mud snails stick to the bottom and give birth to a thousand more,” she said.

Bob Haase, of Fond du Lac, painstakingly demonstrated the fine art of fly tying to one after another prospective angler. The kids sat spellbound by the process, eventually forging their own creations under the watchful eye of their mentor.

“We’ll probably do 750 to 800 for the two days,” said Haase. A member of Trout Unlimited, he said up to a dozen other TU members will show up to help during the two-day event.

“We want the kids to make something and then catch something with what they made themselves,” Haase said. “We give them step-by-step directions on how to do it, and they say ‘I can do that.’”

He explained to the kids a “spinning float” method for use with a bobber and spinning rod.

“You don’t have to have a fly rod,” he said. “We don’t care if they go fly fishing. We want them to get hooked on fishing.”

“I’d like to see other fishing clubs get involved,” Haase said. “I think we could do a lot more; even just to teach them how to tie a fishing knot.”

Monica Kamal and Ray Anderson of Access Ability Wisconsin demonstrated their tracked all-terrain vehicle, designed to help those of limited mobility get into the outdoors. Herself disabled, Kamal is a hunter education instructor and enjoys a variety of outdoor activities, including deer, turkey and pheasant hunting. Several students checked out the vehicle, including Sun Prairie elementary student Kaden Stewart. 

Grandparent Betty McWilliams helped chaperone a large contingent of students from the Dodgeland School District. She and her charges enjoyed the many displays, including the Safari Club International’s impressive array of wild animals, such as the magnificent shoulder mount of a cape buffalo. The various SCI chapters throughout Wisconsin have been major financial contributors to the Expo each year.

The Friends of MacKenzie provided food, drink and directions for students and the many volunteers helping out at the event. Friend’s treasurer Don Jackson spoke to the connection between the MacKenzie facility and Department of Public Instruction requirements.

“This dovetails with the DPI requirement for environmental education,” he said. The Friends group has 250 members, Jackson added.

“Mark had a vision of an expo here,” said DNR deputy secretary Kurt Thiede. “What a showcase of Wisconsin’s outdoor heritage,” he said. “We hope to pass that on to the next generation.”

Labarbera, along with a long list of supporting organizations, salvaged the Expo two years ago after the original venue at Beaver Dam was discontinued. “We’re ready to make it even better next year,” he said.

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