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MacKenzie Center hosts more than 2,000 students for Outdoor Heritage Expo
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MacKenzie Center hosts more than 2,000 students for Outdoor Heritage Expo

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POYNETTE -- Activity stations at MacKenzie Center on Wednesday and Thursday offered 2,300 students opportunities to connect to the outdoors in the Midwest Outdoor Heritage Education Expo -- an event that offered variety even in the form of edible bugs.

“The legs, they stick you in the tongue a little,” said Green Lake Elementary fifth-grader Eric Olmen of a dried cricket he ate from a tortilla chip. “I also tried the mealworm: that tasted like a sunflower seed. It was kind of chewy.”

Green Lake was one of 34 schools from Wisconsin and Illinois to participate at MOHEE, which featured more than 40 activity stations courtesy of conservation groups, businesses and other organizations, provided for students mostly from fifth and sixth grades. Students, to the surprise of some parents and chaperones, lined up eagerly for a taste of roasted crickets and mealworms, and provided mostly positive reviews.

“It didn’t taste that bad,” said Kenyan Miller of Grant Elementary in Wisconsin Rapids. He ate his cricket plain -- no salsa, no chips, he added, at the station operated by North Crawford High School out of Soldiers Grove. Literature provided by North Crawford senior Aleea ComStock noted many insects are rich in protein, amino acids, and vitamins and minerals like potassium and iron.

“At first I thought it would taste weird, but when I tried it, it was kind of good,” said Ruby Godinez, a fifth-grader at Green Lake. She, too, tried the cricket. “I didn’t taste anything really.”

Miller noted that while the “cricket eating” was, to that point, his favorite part of the day Thursday, he’d also enjoyed learning about Native American furs and how to load muzzles. Nearby, in the archery tent, students like fifth-grader Kali Moderow of Waunakee Intermediate received tips from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources archery education administrator Dan Schroeder.

“It looks easy, but it’s hard at first,” Kali said after letting fly a dozen or so arrows. “It gets easy.”

Schroeder explained that one-on-one instruction experiences like Kali’s weren’t uncommon at MOHEE.

“The biggest thing is getting them to physically pull the bow back and just enjoy it,” said Schroeder, an archery educator for seven years. “A lot of kids if you ask them if they’ve ever shot, they say no, and they’re hesitant. But once they do it -- they’re hooked. We get a lot of repeat customers coming through the line.

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"The smiles are never-ending.”

MOHEE founder and organizer Mark LaBarbera explained that it’s the sheer volume of free activities available that help make MOHEE special. 

“This is the one trip, the parents tell us, that dads volunteer to go,” LaBarbera said, noting the MacKenzie Center’s size -- about 500 acres -- makes it easy for MOHEE to offer so much for so many.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped students understand elk reintroduction in Wisconsin, he noted, and the National Wild Turkey Federation was, at that moment, doing turkey calling. Ducks Unlimited, joined by live ducklings, discussed habitat wetlands; Pheasants Forever and Friends of Poynette Game Farm came with pheasant chicks, teaching students about habitat resources; and Wisconsin Trappers skinned muskrats and talked about trapping.

Cabela’s shared tips for camping; and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress talking about all species. The DNR, which owns the MacKenzie Center, provided information about activities in state parks, including bird identification.

“All the groups are tying in conservation messages, land ethics, wildlife management …” LaBarbera said. MacKenzie Center has a “rich history” -- a part of the “cradle of conservation” that was the birthplace of the Wisconsin DNR, he added.

“For us the important thing is to give kids a touch of the wild. If we can do that they’ll be able to relate to nature. The more familiar they are, the more appreciation they’ll have and the more likely they’ll be able to take care of natural resources. Clean water, clean air, it’s all related.”

About 25 sponsors chipped in to make sure any school that wanted to participate can afford to. Providing access to “Vitamin N” -- for nature -- has many long-term benefits, LeBarbera said. “We don’t want to leave any kid inside. We want to have everybody understand the opportunities out there, to sample them, and we tell them where they can go from here, and where the teachers can go from here to learn about ongoing mentoring programs in each of these areas.”

Coni LaBarbera, MOHEE organizer and wife of Mark LeBarbera, said learning the roles different organizations have in the conversation movement connects students to “what sustains us.”

“We never know what person is going to have a lasting impact on a student. You really don’t know. You expose them to it and hope it takes root. But it can be life-changing for some students.”

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