TAMPA — Karen Folsom was a painfully shy sixth-grader in 1977 when she went on a field trip to Nature's Classroom — a tract of land nestled along the Hillsborough River where Hillsborough schoolchildren acquire outdoor skills.
Folsom and her classmates from Progress Village Elementary School were learning about gun safety when an opossum scurried across the course, she recalled. The instructor borrowed Folsom's denim jacket and wrapped it around the creature for the kids to admire.
Then something amusing happened that stayed in the 11-year-old's memory forever: The opossum went to the bathroom in her jacket.
"I was a shy, introverted student," she said. "Everyone kept coming up to me and talking to me as the owner of that jacket. That was my moment of glory."
Like Folsom, every sixth grade student who attended Hillsborough public schools over the past 40 years has some memory of Nature's Classroom. The way the program touched so many young lives has inspired community leaders to invest in its future.
Today, as supporters mark four decades of Nature's Classroom, they will celebrate a new Nature's Classroom that features expanded facilities and renovated animal habitats.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony this afternoon, invited guests will be given the opportunity to tour the 365 acres of Florida native wildlife and plants. It includes an environmental education center, an interpretive center and a welcome center, as well as a boardwalk, an aviary, animal habitats, a boat dock, 11 outdoor classrooms, three river shelters, a restroom facility and sidewalks adjoining the educational areas.
New fencing and roads were also constructed. The pavilions have been refurbished and all power lines have been moved underground.
The $4 million overhaul, which took 10 years to complete from fundraising to construction, was helped along by former Gov. Bob Martinez, who spent summers as an instructor at the Thonotosassa preserve when it was just a summer camp in the late '50s.
In 1969, Nature's Classroom began as a five-day field trip during the school year. It thrived until 1995, when the program was threatened because of budget cuts. But the public uproar was loud and the support strong.
With help from the School Board, the Hillsborough Education Foundation, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and a number of public and private partners, Nature's Classroom was maintained and now has a new look.
Today, kids of kids, and even grandkids, have been through the program, Martinez said.
"I don't know of a (similar program) as sophisticated and as well done as this one," he said. "It really is a gem."
The current version of Nature's Classroom, which now runs over three days, is slightly different than the one Folsom went through as a sixth-grader.
Folsom, who is now the site administrator at Nature's Classroom, said you won't find students firing BB guns during gun safety or using bows and arrows during archery courses.
"It's not a man-in-the-woods, man vs. the wild, survival program," she said. "It's surviving day-to-day, making good choices, eating right, drinking enough water, making good decisions."
And it's a lot of hands-on exposure to nature, not being afraid of the outdoors and appreciating living things, she said.
Students will still see panthers, bobcats and alligators; conduct chemical tests of the river to examine the health of plants and animal life; identify animal tracks; pet baby snakes; and ride on boats.
Folsom said she can't measure the impact the program has had on students, but every time she wears her Nature's Classroom shirt in public, people comment.
"Something is happening here," Folsom said. "It gets under your skin."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or email@example.com.