Focus on a Fellow: Beth Heller

Focus on a Fellow: Beth Heller

Through our Next Generations Leaders program, we work with an extraordinary group of accomplished systems change leaders, each working to inspire and demonstrate ecological, social, economic and spiritual well-being within themselves and for the communities, organizations, and networks that they serve.

Each month, we focus on one of our incredible Academy Fellows, helping you to get to know these inspiring change-makers.

For April, we focus on Beth Heller.

Beth Fetterley Heller is Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning at the Urban Ecology Center. Since 2000, Beth has led the growth of urban environmental and sustainable education opportunities for youth and adults in Milwaukee, WI. Starting with a single classroom in a double-wide trailer, hosting 6000 students for nature-based field trips annually, her programs now run out of 3 branches, 2 state-of-the-art green buildings that provide learning opportunities for 150,000 people of all ages each year.

Here, in Beth’s own words, is the story of how she came to work for the Urban Ecology Center:

In early Spring of 2000, I was exploring the possibility of working at the Urban Ecology Center in the heart of Milwaukee. It is a little ironic that I was even considering as it was less than two years earlier that I had gone through a similar process, wondering then: How could I give kids an awesome outdoor experience with only 350 acres of land with a road running right through it? I started my career in environmental education on 52,000 acres of pristine mountainous landscape in New York, where we had the ability to remove my students from the effects of humans for hours on end. So 350 acres felt confined, but the habitats were rich with biodiversity resulting from 30 years of managing the land from farmland to the native landscapes so I thought it could work.

The Urban Ecology Center ran education programs in just 12 acres of Riverside Park! Riverside Park was bordered to the west by the Milwaukee River, whose shoreline was just beginning to establish itself as riparian habitat after being almost lake-bed – a place where contaminants gathered behind the now drawn down North Avenue dam. The trees had graffiti. The earth was belching up old, rusty remnants of machines and construction materials. Invasive buckthorn, garlic mustard and burdock dominated the vegetation. And there were frequently little wafts of sweet illegal smoke. Could this place possibly be an outdoor classroom? There were signs of hope – a small plot of prairie plants, native wildflowers poking their head up through the weeds, several native species of trees. But was it enough?

I was doubtful, feeling heart-ache for the degraded land, when I heard a familiar song. It was a bouncy, vibrant, somewhat complex birdsong – and I just couldn’t quite place it. So, I looked up from the forbes to find the source of the beautiful song, an Indigo Bunting. Male Indigo buntings are one of the most dazzling birds we have in Wisconsin, with iridescent blue feathers from beak to tail. In the speckled sunlight, those feathers were shining blue-violet, slate and turquoise. This small, sparrow sized bird took by breath away.

And that was it. It answered the question, “Could I teach here?” Absolutely. Without a doubt. If this tiny, beautiful creature could find a place in Riverside Park, so could I. And I did. And it has been an amazing journey ever since.

While at the Urban Ecology Center, Beth has received her MBA from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and has been awarded the 2009 Business Journal “40 under 40 Award” for community leadership in Milwaukee, 2008 Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, Blanch Hornbeck Award for Nature Education and the 2004 Educator of the Year from Wisconsin’s Conservation Congress.

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