Highlands Center for Natural History celebrates 25 years of helping people experience and become caretakers of the land

By Hilary Dartt

The founders of the Highlands Center for Natural History had in mind an intergenerational experience when they started the non-profit.

Its mission statement: “To help children and adults experience the wonders of nature and become wise caretakers of the land.”

Now in its 25th year, the Center thrives, offering visitors myriad opportunities to connect with the natural world, and with each other.

Sarah Vincent, the Center’s Education Director, said that in that quarter-century, the program’s momentum has really built. We’ve seen expansions in the number of people served, the programs offered, the camps, the field trips, and the habitat program [at local schools].”

The Center’s founders saw its mission translating into “caretakership”: “There’s this idea that when connections are shared intergenerationally, the impact is deeper.”

That being said, Sarah emphasized that the Highlands Center is a place for families.

“Young people and children have this optimism, wonder, and enthusiasm for taking care of an earthworm on the sidewalk, or a bird that fell out of a nest,” Sarah said. “It’s this spirit of wanting to care for our home, the natural world that adults have a lot to learn from.”

On the other hand, “Adults bring experience and wisdom, to help take that enthusiasm and translate it into meaningful action.”

Something special happens when two or more generations connect with nature, together, Sarah said. The experience carries beyond the Highlands Center.

Through programs, experiences, and spaces, families have many options to get outside and explore.

These include the Knee-High Naturalist program for three- to five-year-olds and their parents (9:30 to 11 a.m. each Tuesday from March 22 to April 29), Water Awareness Family Festival on Saturday, April 30th, and Discovery Saturday (the last Saturday of the month during the warmer months; this May, Discover Saturday will be a celebration of the Highlands Center’s 25th anniversary).

The Highlands Center’s Discovery Gardens feature an accessible paver pathway that winds through native Central Highlands habitats, as well as a children’s forest play area equipped with rocks to climb and artifacts to explore (bones, rocks, shells, tree cookies, and more).

In the same way that the Highlands Center is meant to cultivate an intergenerational connection within families, its mission has brought together several generations of like-minded people.

Sarah said, “Of the people who helped get the Highlands Center off the ground, many of them are still involved today.”For example, she said, the forest play area was the brainchild of one of the founders, Joan Dukes. Faith Roelofs, another founder, continues to champion natural and human history through ethnobotany programs. Another of the founders, Tom Benson, is expanding programs for older adults. Lesley Alward, 25th Anniversary Celebration Committee Chair, is involved with sustaining the Discovery Gardens and the Schoolyard Habitat Gardens throughout area schools.

“When people come to this place, they just tend to stay.”

For her part, Sarah said, the Center’s “mission pulled me in, and it’s what keeps me here.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in earth science but didn’t realize she loved education until she started leading field trips during her college years. She went on to earn her master’s in education. Her first jobs were in outdoor education and outdoor therapy, and then she came to Arizona.

Stepping out of her car at the Highlands Center, she said, she felt a breath of fresh air. “Everything just slows down.”

She’s seen others experience it, too, when they arrive there.

“I appreciate how the mission flows through everything from staff meetings to adult programs to our interactions with volunteers—it’s present in everything. You can see it and feel it. There are not too many places I’ve been where that is the case.”

Sarah and her husband, Andrew Zapushek, welcomed their first child, a daughter, in February.

The James Learning Center at the Highlands Center for Natural History was the first building in Yavapai County to earn a Gold rating from the U.S. Green Council LEED program.

See a timeline of the Highlands Center history at https://highlandscenter.org/highlands-center-history/

Learn more about the Highlands Center for Natural History at https://highlandscenter.org or on Facebook @HighlandsCenterforNaturalHistory.