SRU student teaches nature’s lessons


summer campers

Stevie Smith (front row, left), a Slippery Rock University parks and recreation major, is developing an outdoor curriculum for summer camps offered by the Sarah Heinz Boys & Girls Club of Pittsburgh.

May 16, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Teaching about wildlife - even microscopic creek critters - can be a way of demonstrating the value of all living things. It can also be a perfect channel to instill valuable life lessons, especially within young people.

Stevie Smith, a Slippery Rock University parks and recreation major, is sharing her enthusiasm for nature with 80 girls who will participate in a summer camp offered by the Sarah Heinz Boys & Girls Club of Pittsburgh.

stevie smith


Smith, a camp counselor and club intern, is developing an outdoor education curriculum for the camp that will educate girls from urban neighborhoods to respect wildlife, not just by reading books but also by taking to the woods for activities.

"I want campers to have a connection to nature everyday," said Smith, of Sheraden. "We can learn from both positive and negative interactions with nature. It may be negative in the sense of a camper doesn't like bugs, but hey, that's perfectly ok, but you don't have to kill the bugs."

The camp, for children 6-18 and offered on a 127-acre campsite near Ellwood City, has presented some nature activities in past years, but Smith is expanding the program to include new elements, a formal curriculum and a mission statement to sustain the educational focus.

Smith said the program would incorporate activities into hikes, such as setting up hammocks in the woods, rock balancing and learning to start a controlled fire as a team building exercise. Other ideas include leaf and bug identification, map reading and "kick netting" to capture macro invertebrates in a stream.

Kick netting is a type of sampling method. You use a net connected to two pieces of wood. Two people stand down stream holding the net while another person starts 10- feet upstream. The upstream camper will kick up the bottom of the stream to get the creatures circulating into the net for observation.

Smith said her goal is to plant a long-term seed for sustainability and earth keeper stewardship. Eventually, new activities will be infused in to the boy's camp, with a few test runs later this summer.

Campers live in Pittsburgh neighborhoods and come from a variety of family units, including foster, single parent, adoption and two-parent backgrounds.

"I do know that a lot of these kids come from rough neighborhoods, and they know that at Heinz Camp they are accepted and truly loved and cared for, for who they are as a person," Smith said. "Society allows us to be average, but I want these campers to know they are above-average individuals. To be an above-average person, you must take above-average actions, and as a student at Slippery Rock University, that is what I plan to do."

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which empowers youth, had its beginnings in 1860 when three Connecticut women organized the first club to give boys a positive alternative to roaming the streets. There are more than 4,000 clubs today. Actor Denzel Washington, a former club participant, has been a spokesman since 1993.

The Sarah Heinz Boys & Girls Club incorporated in 1901. It offers 160 programs, including sports leagues, afterschool activities, free meals, homework time and mentorship.

Smith has been affiliated with the Pittsburgh Boys & Girls Club since childhood, attending its summer camp for more than 10 years. The campsite is rustic; campers sleep in tents, and there is no electricity.

"I grew up at this Boys & Girls club since I was 6 years old," Smith said. "It wasn't just a boys and girls club, it was my second home. These kids weren't other members and the adults weren't just staff, they were family and still are."

Smith said she couldn't be a role model without showing, not just talking about, leadership.

"I know how important my role models were to me, and I know how important these kids are to me," she said. "Because of this family, I have remained my goofy and ambitious self, I have been fearless to take on new opportunities and I have been supported even four years after I have graduated by all of the members and staff at the Sarah Heinz House, and the club means the absolute world to me."

Smith said she believes some girls lack role models.

"Growing up, I looked up to plenty of girls who were my coaches, counselors and older members and I knew growing up that this was exactly what I wanted to be to girls and boys at my boys and girls club as I got older," she said.

"We cannot continue the idea of a "role model'' if it is not practiced," she added. "We should always be looking to help those to the left and right of us and the only way of doing this is actually applying it, which is what I will be striving for myself and the counselors to do."

Smith's internship will continue until mid August. She hopes to be involved with setting up the boy's camp.

Six to 18 is a broad range of girls, so Smith said each age group needs messages delivered in different terms of tone and expression. "The whole shebang" of fun games, debriefings and nature lessons will be age appropriate, she said.

"With younger children, I am able to incorporate many more ideas based on the use of imagination and referring to my younger years of being a child," she said. "I am easily suckered in to the mindset of a younger child. Being able to laugh at yourself and act goofy with a younger set of children is important when trying to get a message across, but is also very important when working with an older group of girls."

She and other camp counselors will evaluate the girls on teamwork, leadership, friendship, respect and self-confidence.

"I have worked with children of all ages from a very young age, so it really depends on my first day of interactions with the girls and understanding the needs for each of them," she said.

Sherri Kotwica, Heinz Camp director, said she has known Smith she was 13.

"She's just intense, everything she does is intense," Kotwica said. "She has a jest for life and for taking advantage of opportunities. She's going to be extremely successful no mater what she does."

Following graduation from SRU, Smith hopes to work in youth development in an outdoor setting.

MEDIA CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine | 724.738.4854 |