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EENC Memories from Our Founders

Recently, EENC founding members Melva Fager Okun, Lois Nixon, and Randee Haven O’Donnell gathered over lunch to reminisce and share stories about EENC’s early days with Communications Board Chair Will Freund and Communications & Relationships Manager Grace Baucom. Together – along with input from early Board Members Sheila Jones and Thomas Shepherd via email – the trio described a history of EENC illuminating the grassroots, collaborative nature of our organization’s beginnings, and the many people who helped bring EENC as we know it to life. Many thanks to EENC founder and first President Melva for coordinating and hosting this special event!


The Catalyst: When attending conferences of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) in the eighties through her work at UNC’s Environmental Resource Program (now the Center for Public Engagement with Science), Melva Fager Okun noticed something. Other states represented at the conference – Florida, Kentucky, Texas, and Minnesota among them – were organizing chapters for environmental educators in their states to connect, network, and support each other. “I was jealous,” Melva told us – North Carolina didn’t have any such community for environmental educators! Determined to change that, Melva sought and received funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to begin building a statewide professional society for environmental educators in North Carolina.

Assembling the Team: Among the first educators Melva connected with was Randee Haven O’Donnell, who was a teacher at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School in Chapel Hill at the time. The two had attended NAAEE conferences together, and Randee had implemented innovative environmental education efforts in her own classroom and school. Randee and Melva started reaching out to organizations within their own professional networks, and the group began to grow organically through word of mouth. Educators in the Chapel Hill area connected with counterparts in Raleigh, and soon, Wake County environmental educators Sheila Jones and Lois Nixon joined the chapter as key early members. Melva was the first to convince me to step up and do my part,” Sheila says of her decision to take on the chapter Secretary position. “She was a wonderful role model and an EE dynamo to emulate!”

Early Meetings: Lois, Randee, and Melva describe the environmental education landscape in NC at the time as a very siloed one, with interpreters and wildlife conservationists largely isolated from environmental educators. Early EENC meetings in the Triangle area provided a space for EE professionals of all backgrounds to come together and find community, through what Randee aptly calls “cross-pollination.” “We fueled each other’s passions,” she notes. “Creative thinkers, thought leaders, started to establish a real, clear vision: ‘What does it mean to be an environmental educator?’” The growing community met monthly around the Triangle to build connections and have fun together, including one particularly memorable meeting when Melva passed a hat to pay for the postage needed to mail EENC’s early communications to members. “We kept meeting this amazing network of people who said, ‘Let’s get together and help each other grow,’” Melva explains. “We had fabulous people who shared a vision; that’s how it started and that’s how it grew.”

First Conference & Formalization: After an initial gathering at the NC Botanical Garden – featuring an auction that Sheila described as being “more like a garage sale” – EENC held its first conference on a rainy day at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School in the spring of 1991. Lois estimates that 12-15 educators were in attendance – and after touring the school’s award-winning outdoor classroom space, the group gathered in the gymnasium to plan out an organizational structure for themselves. They were “totally focused on the immediate: ‘What’s it take to pull people together?’” Lois noted. That brainstorming session quickly led to the development of governing bylaws, and just a few months after that rainy day at Frank Porter Graham, the small-but-mighty crew of founding members became officially incorporated as the Environmental Educators of North Carolina, with Melva in the lead as the organization’s first President.

Building Momentum: Through the 90s and early 2000s, the annual conference served as the cornerstone of EENC activities. The EENC Board intentionally sought out diverse and inspiring keynote speakers, as well as unique conference locations across North Carolina, so educators could visit and learn about new parts of the state. The 1999 conference on Bald Head Island was particularly memorable, featuring new connections with the coastal EE landscape, many happy educators zipping around the island on golf carts, and a special musical presentation by local environmental education icon Billy B. at Southport Elementary School. At the “EE Renaissance”-themed conference at Castle McCulloch in 2000, then-Secretary Mir Youngquist-Thurow played the flute for attendees as they crossed the entry drawbridge and Tom Shepherd gave the welcoming address wearing green tights and a feathered cap. At Camp Kanuga in Hendersonville in 2004, the EENC community enjoyed an evening with John Muir impersonator Lee Stetson. And at Fort Bragg in 2006, attendees learned about on-site Longleaf Pine conservation efforts, heard readings from acclaimed author Janissee Ray, and enjoyed a one-woman play by actress Kaiulani Lee detailing Rachel Carson’s career. It was at an early conference, too, that Randee sketched out drafts of what would become EENC’s first logo (pictured above). Other memorable conference moments shared include porpoises playfully joining attendees for the boat ride from the Trinity Center to Bear Island, and Cape Fear Riverkeeper Bootie Baldridge giving the keynote address from the pier to a “regatta” of EENC members on High Point City Lake – 54 canoes and kayaks strong.

NC Environmental Education Certification: EENC was actively and centrally involved in the creation of North Carolina’s Environmental Education Certification program, now housed and coordinated by NC DEQ’s Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs. Sheila remembers environmental educators racing to submit their applications to be among the program’s first cohort, and that she worked with a committee of members to adapt the Project WILD teaching song, “Habitat, habitat; you’ve got to have a habitat,” to “Certified, certified; you’ll want to be certified!” in time for the certification program’s launch ceremony. The certification was immediately popular, and in recognition of EENC’s involvement in its development, NAAEE designated EENC as the 1998 Affiliate of the Year.

Going Global: In 2011, EENC won the bid to host NAAEE’s conference at the then-brand new Raleigh Convention Center. Lois took the lead in the multi-year preparation process, organizing committees to plan workshop sessions, coordinate a research symposium and field trips – including a kayaking trip on the Neuse River led by Thomas – and to solicit and display science-themed artwork by North Carolina students. The result was an impressive showcase of North Carolina’s ecosystems and environmental education landscape that drew over 1,000 attendees from 26 countries and almost every US state. In addition to being an opportunity for environmental educators to come together for networking and professional development, that 2011 conference represented a milestone of growth and significance for EENC as an organization, demonstrating our collective capacity and commitment to the environmental education community – in our state and globally.


We’re grateful for the opportunity to walk down memory lane with some of our founders and earliest supporters. Many thanks to Melva Fager Okun, Lois Nixon, Randee Haven O’Donnell, Sheila Jones, and Thomas Shepherd for sharing their stories, and for the many early members who helped build the community that we treasure.

EENC’s Central Section and Central Section Board Chair Krista Brinchek also extend a special congratulations to Sheila Jones on her recent retirement from an impactful career in EE with Wake County, where she touched the lives of countless students and environmental educators alike.


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