Class is in session online at Camp McDowell


The coronavirus has shut down schools and businesses, but it can't close God's backyard, the nickname for Camp McDowell.

Though the Episcopal Church camp and conference center, which is also home to the Alabama Folk School, McDowell Environmental Center and McDowell Farm School, has been closed to the public since March 16, staff members are doing daily videos that showcase life at the camp. 

Just as teachers are finding new ways to educate outside of a classroom, Camp McDowell staffers are breaking out of their comfort zones to share their knowledge and love of nature.

"You can see the passion of every single person in these videos for what they do and for the people they are talking to on the other side of the screen. We're adapting like the rest of the world is adapting," said Beth Dille, director of the McDowell Environmental Center.

The first live video, uploaded to Camp McDowell's Facebook page on March 20, featured animal program manager Marika Van Brocklin and a female Great Horned Owl.

Viewers have also learned about frog and toad calls and animal adaptations, visited broiler chickens and goats at the farm school and gotten a crash course in making and maintaining a sourdough starter for baking.

Positive feedback has come in from as far away as France and England. 

"Our country, our state, our world is being pushed into change. We don't have the opportunity to run away from it at this point. There is so much hurt and sadness. If we can offer a little bit of hope, goodness and love during this time, then we're doing our part," Dille said. 

The idea of doing educational videos to complement lessons offered both on-site and off had been discussed for awhile.

"I've been here for three years, and it's been our dream to get educational programming out into social media and to be a resource for teachers outside of here. Now we have to. It's the only choice we have to stay connected," Dille said.

Though the idea had been percolating for years, there was little time to figure out the logistics. The directors of the various programs met and agreed that the camp should offer some online content. 

Dille filmed a message from the camp's beloved swinging bridge early on March 20 and announced that Van Brocklin and the Great Horned Owl would be going live at 10 a.m. 

Private educational videos are being offered for the 14 students currently enrolled in Magnolia Nature School, the state's first nature-based preschool which is located at Camp McDowell.

The videos are a connection to the camp not only for students who were looking forward to a spring field trip but to parents and kids who are trying to fill their time at home.

Many are seeking emotional reassurance as much as an educational lesson.

"There are a lot of resources out there, but people feel connected to Camp McDowell in a way that is really special. The biggest thing for me has been hearing stories like 'I sat down with my kid today and watched this with them, and both of us were so excited.' It's started out as science lessons, but it has shifted into making sure that we're hitting on emotional and social learning, which has always been important to us as well," Dille said.