Volunteers clear path for new `Big Backyard'

AmeriCorps pitches in with Irvine Center move


Beyond a gravel path, past a grass field and hidden by towering trees in Owings Mills, a small group of young men and women dismantle an old barn.

While two workers put all their strength into knocking boards free with sledge hammers, another passes the wood to the last team member, who rips out the nails.

They are members of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, and their goal is to salvage any wood to save the Irvine Nature Center some money when it breaks ground this fall on a new facility next to the barn site, on 116-acre location off Garrison Forrest Road in Owings Mills.

In all, 11 AmeriCorps members are spending part of the summer helping the nature center with its expansion and move. One day, they might help build a trail. Another, they might build picnic tables.

Cory Price, one of the four Corps members working on the barn on a recent Monday afternoon, was excited to help out because of the message the nature center relays to children.

"I think it's awesome because we're laying the groundwork for future generations to come and learn about the environment," Price, a 23-year-old from Portland, Ore., said. "You only get one Earth."

Price and his team started their term with the Corps in late January and will continue until Nov. 9. In that period, the Corps members are expected to complete 1,700 hours of service. Working with Irvine is the third project of the 10-month venture for the AmeriCorps team.

The Corps offers services to education, public safety, health, and the environment organizations, and Irvine was looking for help to save money for their relocation project.

Irvine, the only private, nonprofit nature center in the area, has been housed at St. Timothy's School in Stevenson for 31 years. In 2000, the state gave Irvine 116 acres for a new $10.5 million center.

The nature center and the Corps created a partnership after representatives from each party met at a volunteer fair where the groups had neighboring tables.

The group started working with Irvine late last month, and while some members can be called out at any time to help with other projects, at least some team members will be working with Irvine through Aug. 23.

The Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery was planning on tearing down the barn for its own expansion, said Erin Wisnieski, director of habitat management at Irvine. Irvine was allowed to dismantle the barn and keep any usable wood for its new property.

"We could really use any of it," Wisnieski said of the wood. "We like the look of the old wood, and it's nice to be able to reuse it."

Before the workers could start taking down the structure, they had to clear out some of the objects inside, including hundreds of brown corn cobs, two ladders, a wooden wheelchair, and even a couple of animal jaw bones that had been collected to use for educational purposes at the center.

Wisnieski said the group will also be working on building picnic tables and a trail bridge for Irvine's new location. The projects are just part of the master plan for the new center, which Irvine dubbed "Baltimore's Big Backyard."

The site includes wetlands, forest, farm land, meadows and streams. The main building with a half a roof that's vegetated, walking trails, aviaries for injured birds, an amphitheater and a complex of gardens.

"We want people to be able to come here and take a nice walk, have a picnic, and enjoy the outdoors," Wisnieski said.

Irvine is now running a capital campaign to cover construction costs and increase the endowment. So far, Wisnieski said, Irvine has raised $6 million.

The relocation plans are the result of expansion efforts by both Irvine and St. Timothy's School. As the school grows, Irvine has had to shrink part of its outdoor education area, Wisnieski said.

Katie Irwin, a 22-year-old from Iowa, said the group was pleased to learn the Irvine project involves a lot of physical work, something their last projects were lacking.

"I think we're going to stay busy," Irwin said.


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