Earth Matters: Honoring a local hero: After 40 years, Hitchcock Center bids farewell to educator and creative leader, Colleen Kelley

Colleen Kelley crouches in a field of lush native plants with a group of parents and young children leading a lesson about environmentalism and loving nature.

Colleen Kelley crouches in a field of lush native plants with a group of parents and young children leading a lesson about environmentalism and loving nature. HITCHCOCK CENTER

After 40 years of nurturing the Hitchcock Center’s mission, Colleen Kelley is moving on.

After 40 years of nurturing the Hitchcock Center’s mission, Colleen Kelley is moving on. HITCHCOCK CENTER

By TED WATT and HELEN ANN SEPHTON

For the Gazette

Published: 05-10-2024 9:15 PM

This column honors Colleen Kelley, the education director at the Hitchcock Center, who will soon be leaving her post after 40 years.

In the fall of 1984, Colleen walked into the Hitchcock Center — young, bright, idealistic, and fresh off a position as an environmental educator at another center. She had moved to the Valley and was looking for work.

She hadn’t been there but a few minutes when a school bus pulled into the parking lot. The director looked panicked for a moment, then turned to Colleen. “Well, here’s a school group and our educator just called in sick. Can you help?”

With her cooperative, can-do attitude, she said sure and jumped right in. The director took the opportunity to observe Colleen’s teaching. With zero time to prepare, she still worked her magic with the group. The director went back to their office, found Colleen’s application in the reject pile, and hired her on the spot. Her talents, skills, and people-centered abilities carried her that day, as they would for more than 40 years.

Colleen has worn just about every hat at the Hitchcock Center. Her desire to continually grow and challenge herself led her to take on roles such as environmental educator, teaching mentor, program creator and education director. She has always led in informal ways too. She has transformed herself into “Speedy, the Aerobics Instructor Turtle” for family events, and she has led staff bike trips to annual environmental conferences.

She knows where every single teaching prop and tool can be found, and if you are preparing a new program, she is there with a fun activity to engage students, or a new way to teach something. Her unflagging positive attitude and joy in sharing ideas fuel a work culture of collaboration and mutual respect. She keeps that culture vibrantly alive every day.

For many years, the autumn trails at the Hitchcock Center were transformed into the Enchanted Forest. Families followed a pumpkin-lit trail and met characters who might be mysterious, silly, or even a little gross (think owl pellets and maggots). \

Each year, Colleen’s character was unforgettable, in teaching fun nature facts, and more importantly, getting children of all ages to relate with the amazing personalities she would imagine, such as Way Cool Juanita Woodchuck or Whitney Mosquito. Families discovered that the boundaries between nature study and imagination can blur on one magical evening each year, thanks in large part to Colleen’s vision and leadership in bringing this program to life.

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Throughout her years at Hitchcock, Colleen consistently researched the latest best practices and innovative programs for children. She attended workshops and read articles, discovering potential for new, exciting programs, and then she made them happen.

When new state science standards were expanded to include instruction about engineering and design, Colleen collaborated with other staff to develop challenges that focus on problem-solving through hands-on design and engineering construction projects. For example, in the Roof Rainwater Capture Challenge, elementary and middle school students design, construct and test model houses to see how well they capture roof runoff water. Students were given opportunities to envision themselves as inventors and problem-solvers in the real world, all while having fun with their peers.

By high school, students are ready to become change agents for sustainability in their communities. Colleen collaborated with Mass Audubon at Arcadia to develop Youth Climate Leaders (YCL). These high school students host an annual Youth Climate Summit, inspired by the WILD Center in New York State. After more than seven years, this summit has grown in size and community impact, from a small event with 35 students to over 150 participants at the Springfield Museums, totally run by local youth.

Out of the summits have come community projects with significant impacts, including school and city-wide composting, community gardens, and school cafeteria food systems improvements. The YCL program has become a model used across the state.

In her own words, Colleen describes what motivates her work: “I feel passionate about the work we do — each year it becomes even more important to get outside with children and adults and connect to the local environment — to take time to slow down, listen, observe and feel.”

Colleen has drawn inspiration from the writings of Rachel Carson, whose classic work “The Sense of Wonder” called for nurturing childrens’ inborn sense of wonder and excitement as a way to connect to and care for the earth. If a child is to keep alive this sense of wonder, Carson said they needed “the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

In this spirit, Colleen created the program that is perhaps closest to her heart: The Nature Discovery Preschool. In this adult/child program, caregivers explore alongside their children, sharing in the excitement while learning ways to engage with their child in nature.

Alongside her teaching legacy is the legacy of a beautiful space at the Hitchcock Center: The Colleen Kelley Nature Discovery Play Yard. Open to the public, this space has a richness of natural materials where visitors can get messy and invent their own activities. Parents can relax, play with their children, and connect with other families. Colleen’s curious and playful spirit is infused in all its elements.

In closing, we quote fellow staff member, Micky McKinley: “Colleen has made the Hitchcock Center what it is — respecting kids, making learning fun, always sharing resources, always remaining dedicated to the Hitchcock Center and its mission — through many challenges and changes. I think Colleen really is the Hitchcock Center.”