NEWPORT — For Dawn Dextraze, education and outreach specialist for the Sullivan County Conservation District, the past year has been a continuing experiment in adaptation due in large part to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But despite hosting fewer school field trips than in previous years, the county’s educational program found new approaches to connect with county residents.
“Education has looked a little different this year,” Dextraze told the Sullivan County commissioners this week. “Our programs were ramping up, but then COVID happened.”
The Sullivan County Conservation District, now in its 75th year of operation, provides a variety of environmental resources and programs aimed at teaching residents about the county’s natural ecosystems and cultivating a sense of stewardship and appreciation for the local landscape.
The Sullivan County Conservation District’s educational component, known as “Place-Based Education,” teaches students, educators and residents through programs that include field trips, educational workshops, service projects, school programs and community events.
While New Hampshire public schools refrained from field trips during the 2020-21 school year, Dextraze said she still provided many outdoor educational programs for private schools and homeschooling families. Dextraze also made monthly trips to a youth residential facility in Plainfield to teach high-school students in natural resources topics.
“All told we still had 71 lessons happen last year, totaling 1,739 learning hours,” Dextraze said.
Many of those hours came through partnering with N.H. School Administrative Unit 6’s summer learning program, according to Dextraze.
“Claremont Parks and Recreation came to us and asked if we could do a nature study [program], which is great because they had never come to us before to fill one of those spots for them,” Dextraze told the commissioners.
Dextraze’s summer program for the district ran daily, Monday through Friday, for six weeks and accommodated 80 total students from grades K-5, with student cohorts alternating days of attendance.
Dextraze also used social media during the shutdown to connect to new audiences through a series of daily Facebook posts called “Get Outside and Learn.” Each day Dextraze would introduce readers to a new topic, such as a plant or fungi or mysterious biological or geological event that is found within the local ecosystem.
The “Get Outside and Learn” posts built a following of about 3,500 people, according to Dextraze.
“I’ve heard a lot of good feedback from people saying that they have really enjoyed them,” Dextraze said. “So I think we connected to a completely different audience that way, one who normally wouldn’t know what we do otherwise.”
Another surprisingly effective outreach tool is the Sullivan County Conservation District’s new cidery program, according to Dextraze. The volunteer-run public cidery, located at the county complex in Unity, launched in 2019 but did not operate during 2020 because of the pandemic. The cidery reopened last month for the 2021 apple-picking season, kicking off with the unveiling of the new cidery wall mural. The mural project was led by Claremont artist Alison Zito, who worked with children during the summer to develop elements of the design. Twenty-five children and adults helped Zito paint the mural.
With the help of volunteers, the Sullivan County Conservation District pressed and bottled its own cider to give away at public events, which provides a great way to engage residents about the county’s offerings, according to Dextraze.
During the Claremont Fall Festival this past weekend, the Sullivan County Conservation District gave away 90 pints of cider in just an hour, Dextraze said.
“We made very good use of our time [at the festival], standing there and talking to people and handing out as many brochures as we could,” Dextraze said. “So hopefully in that time frame somebody learns something new about the county services and what we do.”
Use of the public cidery has increased dramatically since 2019. In the first year, there were 10 scheduled pressings, producing a total of 104 gallons of cider. This season, there had been 18 pressings as of a recent count, producing 208 gallons of cider, with 10 pressings scheduled for the coming two weeks.
“We had a bridal party from Connecticut show up to press apples one time,” Dextraze said.
The Sullivan County Conservation District is also being asked to bring the cider press to community events.
“It’s great that our reach is getting to all these different kinds of people,” Dextraze said.
The Sullivan County Conservation District will also be hosting two educational events as part of its Sustainable Foods from the Forest program. The first event, about oak silviculture, is on Saturday, Oct. 16, from 10 a.m. to noon. The second event, on making and using acorn flour, will be on Saturday, Oct. 23.
Dextraze said the Sullivan County Conservation District originally wanted to provide this event last year but had to delay it due to the pandemic restrictions.
The oak silviculture event is free. The cost for the acorn flour-making event is $15 for an individual or $20 for families.
Registration is required as capacity will be limited. To register, contact Dawn Dextraze at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 504-1004.
More information about the Sullivan County Conservation District is available at sccdnh.org.
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