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Wolf Ridge ELC: Jack and Genea's enduring dream

12 of the 500,000 members of the ELC community. Wolf Ridge1 / 6
A model of the ELC in Isabella. Wolf Ridge2 / 6
The Environmental Learning Center sign in Isabella. Wolf Ridge3 / 6
The Wolf Ridge ELC sign today. Tammy Francois4 / 6
Executive director Peter Smerud and founders Jack and Genea Pichotta celebrate the 40th anniversary of Wolf Ridge on Sunday, Sept. 30. Tammy Francois5 / 6
A message on the board for Jack at Wolf Ridge on Sunday. Tammy Francois6 / 6

The morning sun illuminated the red and gold leaves and the sky was cloudless blue in Finland on Sunday. It was a fitting tribute by Mother Nature to a couple whose vision has brought over a half million people to northern Minnesota to learn about the environment.

Jack and Genea Pichotta, founders of the Environmental Learning Center in Isabella, their children Betsy, Sally, Andy and Bruce and over 200 people from all over the region were on hand at Wolf Ridge to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Messages were also coming in from as far away as Japan and Argentina from alum who wanted to send their congratulations, according to Peter Smerud, executive director of Wolf Ridge ELC.

"Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center is about relationship--feeling a connection and being part of a community even though you live 1000 miles away," said Smerud in his remarks welcoming theaudience to the" One for you, One for Jack" closing ceremony that concluded a weekend of events

celebrating the milestone. Smerud recounted the many years of hard work and dedication of the

Pichottas and the staff who have been part of the ELC's success since it opened four decades before.

Smerud started with the ELC in 1987 and has been the director for a year and a half.

Wolf Ridge was the first environmental learning center in the United States to earn accreditation as a kindergarten-12th grade school and has since been a leader in environmental education throughout the world, said Smerud, and over 15,000 students, parents and teachers from 185 schools in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota come to Wolf Ridge each year.

"The next thing we want to do is strengthen and broaden the scope of influence of Wolf Ridge," said Smerud, "we try to keep the fees we charge students as low as possible. We work diligently to ensure that students of all walks of life can have this experience."

The ELC has also begun sending staff into schools to present environmental education modules to students in the Twin Cities and Duluth.

Smerud reported that in 2008, the Center paid off the $1.8 million dollar debt it incurred when it moved from Isabella to Finland and fundraising efforts have netted over $1.5 million in the past five years, including donations by kids who have sent letters and their $35 to become members.

"They care desperately about this place," he said.

Earlier this year, a generous gift from the estate of Michael Plautz, a board of trustees member who died in January, was the nest egg for an endowment of $350,000. Between the fundraising efforts, membership fees, earned income ( 85 percent of their budget) and the endowment, Smerud is confident about the future of the ELC.

"We're in rock solid shape and we're debt free," he said.

Tom Berg, chariman of the board of trustee, stood before the audience to deliver his remarks about the work that has been done in recent years .

"I feel like I'm at a combination political rally and revival service," he quipped.

From somewhere in the room someone shouted "Halleluja!" The audience laughed and clapped.

Berg reported that much work had been done on at the center to make it more energy efficient and comfortable--new roofs, new pipes going to all the buildings from the onsite energy center, down lighting to prevent light pollution and new, insulated windows and doors.

"In the offices are computers--relatively current--with current software," he said, again evoking laughter.

On a more serious note, however, Berg said, "There have been changes in society. It feels like the world is against teachers and science...but you can go home knowing Wolf Ridge is in pretty good shape to go into its next 40 years."

Jack Pichotta stepped up to the microphone and the crowd greeted him with applause and a standing ovation . Pichotta recalled when he brought his young family to the northwoods with the dream of an environmental learning center. Forty years later, in the science center that bears his name, many of his dreams have become reality. He does however, want more for Minnesota kids and the environment.

"One of the things I would envision and hope is that an immersion program of environmental education would be part of the curriculum in every school in the state," Pichotta said.

According to Pichotta, within 10 years of opening the ELC in Isabella , it was filled to capacity with a long waiting list. As a result, other environmental learning centers opened throughout the state. Six hundred Minnesota schools now take kids to these centers for an environmental emersion experience. This represents about 60 percent of Minnesota schools and speaks to the success of such programs, and the potential to build capacity so that every sixth grader can attend, he said. "For the next 40 years, I would like to see this kind of program legislated into schools."

During an open mic, the audience had an opportunity to share what the Wolf Ridge experience meant to them. Some cried and some told humorous stories of staff exploits over the years, but all reported that the experience changed their lives. The open mic was recorded and a copy of the recording will be presented to the Pichottas at a later date.

In his closing comments Pichotta looked to the future of Wolf Ridge.

"Political reality is dismal," said Pichotta referring to Berg's remarks, "but the other reality is you--it's a community. This place is successful because of you and there are 500,000 kids, moms, dads, teachers, siblings and grandparents who are all part of the community. We've got work to do. Let's do it."