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Rural Missouri Magazine

Get out, get 'WOWed'
Wonders of Wildlife schools let families enjoy the outdoors together

by Jason Jenkins

Kyle Kosovich from the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, left, holds up a turtle so that 10-year-old Dallas Morris, center, and Chris McGeeney can get a closer look during the stream ecology class. The two participate in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks program. Below: 4-year-old Madison Foley fishes with WOW volunteer Jessica Long from Missouri State University’s Outdoor Recreation program.

With cane poles over their shoulders, father and son walk down a dirt road on their way to the fishing hole. The son scurries ahead, picking up stones to skip across the water’s surface. The father ambles along, whistling a simple, yet catchy, tune.

Replayed in black and white each week, the indelible image from the opening credits of “The Andy Griffith Show” conjures memories of a simpler time. It also recalls a time when outdoor activities, such as fishing, were commonly a family affair.

There’s no doubt Andy taught Opie to enjoy fishing and all facets of the outdoors, just as his father had taught him as a child. But not everyone grows up in Mayberry.

While they may be interested in fishing, camping or other activities, many families no longer have the opportunity or access to enjoy the outdoors like the Taylors. That’s where Misty Mitchell comes in.

As director of conservation programs at Springfield’s Wonders of Wildlife, Misty works to offer all Opies the chance to skip a stone or learn to fish.

She oversees the museum’s National Outdoor Recreation and Conservation School, known more simply as WOW School. Since its inception in 1997, hundreds of children and families across Missouri connect with the outdoors together each year through the schools.

“It’s a program to unplug the kids from the TV and the Nintendo and bring a family group together outdoors,” says Misty, who has organized WOW School since 2001. “We provide them with a weekend experience at relatively low cost where they can learn about all the cool things that are outdoors.”

James Mitchell from Archery Quest in Springfield helps 4-year-old Ricky Pierce shoot a bow and arrow at the WOW School held at Ritter Springs Park in north Springfield.

The schools are designed to accommodate children 4 years old and up. A separate set of activities, called Kids Camp, is offered for 4- to 8-year-olds. Qualified staff organize the day’s activities to allow the younger kids to experience the outdoors, but at their level and ability.

“This allows the adults to go to the classes with the kids that are 9 years old and up,” Misty explains. “They can take all of the classes and learn together.”

She says it’s important to get the entire family involved at every level.

”Otherwise, if you educate the kids and teach them outdoor skills, who is going to take them back out again?” she asks. “You need to get mom and dad or grandma and grandpa or even a family friend to be interested, too. That’s the key.”

Currently, five WOW schools are offered in Missouri each year in Springfield, Columbia, St. Louis, Kansas City and at Roaring River State Park near Cassville. The activities offered vary with the location’s amenities, the expertise and availability of local volunteers and the interest of the participants.

At the recent Springfield school, held in late April at Ritter Springs Park, classes included Dutch oven cooking, stream ecology, flint knapping, canoeing, bank fishing, herpetology, horseback riding, archery, fly fishing and cave exploring. Popular classes at other schools include geocaching, rock climbing, rappelling, bird watching, turkey hunting, mountain biking, wildlife photography and fish gigging.

“We offer gigging at Roaring River, and it is by far the most popular,” Misty says. “It’s so popular that we auction spots during our fundraiser.”

Most classes teach basic, introductory skills, though some advanced skills are offered as well. All classes are designed to first emphasize safety as well as conservation and ethics.

Hailey Foley, stirs a zucchini dish as her mother, Lisa, adds garlic salt. The dish was one of several entrees and desserts the two prepared in the Dutch oven cooking class.

As with the classes offered, cost for individual schools varies by location. The St. Louis and Kansas City schools are the least expensive at $25 per family for the two-day experience.

“We want to make sure that cost isn’t an impediment, especially at our urban schools where families may have never been outdoors,” Misty says. “At those schools, we do offer some scholarships.”

As the oldest WOW school, the four-day Roaring River event is the most expensive. But even at $60 per person, the school attracts more than 300 people from seven states.

“We have people that want to know next year’s dates as soon as they walk in the door,” Misty says. “They will book their cabin a year in advance and come for vacation.”

This was the second year that Frank and Becky Swinney of Halfway attended the WOW school in Springfield with their sons Chris, 12, and Kyle, 10.

“I was really looking forward to this weekend because there’s not a lot of things all four of us can do together,” Becky says. “Getting to spend time with family, that’s the best part.”

Frank acknowledged that while his boys play video games, they also like to go camping, fishing and swimming. The WOW school allows the family to try new outdoor activities in a setting where you don’t feel that you’re on your own, he says.

“It’s great that they get to experience a lot of different activities,” says the Southwest Electric Cooperative member. “Usually, it would cost a lot of money to go canoeing and rent the canoes and everything, but here we can do it for a few hours and all the equipment’s there and the kids can learn.”

“I like to try new things outside,” says Kyle, who with his mother learned to make arrowheads in flint knapping, shoot a bow and arrow and ride horses. “My favorite was horseback riding.”

4-year-old Madison Foley fishes with WOW volunteer Jessica Long from Missouri State University’s Outdoor Recreation program.

Older brother Chris also tried flint knapping, but then he and his father attended the canoeing and cave exploring classes. “I really liked all the different activities,” he says. “It was fun.”

Even for an outdoor-oriented family, WOW school offered a chance to try new activities. Jay and Lisa Foley of Versailles also attended the Springfield event with their four children: Hailey, 12; Wyatt, 7; Allison, 6; and Madison, 4.

While the three youngest Foley children attended Kids Camp, Lisa and Hailey took the Dutch oven cooking class, along with archery and herpetology.

“We had a blast. I just loved it,” says Lisa, a Co-Mo Electric Cooperative member. “It was fun for me to do it with my daughter because she’s at that age where Mom knows absolutely nothing.”

She adds that both she and Jay were raised in families that enjoy the outdoors. She thinks it’s important to keep that going with their children.

“You can do things together,” Lisa says. “It’s unreal how many parents are not involved in what their kids are doing. I guess we’re fortunate to have that. We just love being outside.”

With continued support from volunteers and partnerships with Bass Pro Shops, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, Wonders of Wildlife hopes to continue growing its current list of Missouri schools. According to Misty, there are plans in the future to possibly expand the program nationally.

“We’ve also talked about doing one other school on the Current River,” she says. “It would be an overnight trip, and the family would have taken so many classes ahead of time at a WOW school on cooking, canoeing and fishing. A staff member would go, so they still feel comfortable, but they’d kind of be on their own.”

Schools in other regions of Missouri also could be possible, if enough interest was generated and enough volunteer support could be raised.

For Misty, WOW school is by far the favorite part of her job. “I really like to see the families who come back,” she says. “I like to hear the stories of what they did during the year and just watch them interact and get excited about the outdoors.”

The remaining 2008 WOW schools are scheduled for June 6-7 in St. Louis, Sept. 26-27 in Kansas City and Oct. 10-12 at Roaring River State Park. For more information, visit www.wondersofwildlife.org and click on the “WOW School” link, or call 877-245-9453.

Instructors discuss the basics of safe canoeing during an afternoon session at the Springfield WOW School.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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