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ColorFest blends education and fun

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Volunteers share what they've learned

By Kacie Goode

Seeing the kids’ eyes light up at the wildlife displays Saturday made Mark Humphrey a very happy volunteer.

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“They’re connected,” Humphrey said, pointing to children looking at animal pelts, bones and tracks. “It’s like in school, they don’t have these kinds of exhibits,” where they can be hands-on. 

Humphrey, of Louisville, is a naturalist in training and began taking classes at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in January to learn more about nature.

“I’ve been coming here a long time, as a kid and as a photographer later on,” he said. “I just felt like it was time to give back since I’ve gotten so much out of it.” 

On Saturday, Humphrey was assisting Cele Beckner, a certified naturalist, in a wildlife discovery station at the forest’s annual fall celebration, ColorFest. 

“This is kind of the last event for our class,” he said of the festival. And it allows him to connect with the forest in a new way. 

 “I had used the natural aspect more than the social aspect,” he said of his previous visits. By the end of the day, he was already developing ideas on how to improve next year’s presentations.

In training, the naturalists often learn from veteran members of the Bernheim community. 

One such person was volunteer naturalist Dick Dennis, of Louisville. 

“Been here 11 years now,” Dennis said as he worked his station at ColorFest Saturday. “I love it out here.” 

Dennis started coming to Bernheim as a kid, but stopped for about 50 years or so when “life got in the way.” 

While attending a conference at the forest a few years ago, Dennis reconnected with its beauty and started volunteering the next week. 

“I always tell the school children, you go to the zoo, you’ve got a packaged product. Out here, you keep your eyes and your ears open because you never know what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen,” he said. 

Dennis also leads activities during the forest’s ECO Kids Discovery Days, held the first and third Saturday of the month in and around the Visitor Center. Though he teaches on topics such as insects and plant life, raptors are his favorite, he said. 

“As a former career, I was a federal prosecutor,” Dennis said. “It’s against federal law to kill any bird of prey — a hawk, an eagle, an owl.” 

His office had a taxidermied owl as evidence, and it sparked Dennis’ interest to learn more about the creatures. That interest tied in well with his volunteer work and education at Bernheim, inspiring his station. 

Dennis said he loves Bernheim and events such as the ColorFest because of all it has to offer.

“Nobody stumbles across Bernheim. People are out here because they want to be out here,” he said. “So I learn a lot from the visitors as well.” 

And visitors learn a lot about Bernheim from volunteers.

“Everybody has been really nice about helping you and educating you on their different topic,” said Marissa Wood, of Indiana, who was there with her husband, Andrew, and their 2-1/2-year-old daughter. “She loves those owls, so (Dennis) was telling us all about them.” 

Sunday was the first time the Woods had visited Bernheim. 

“I just became the coordinator for a preschool group and I was looking for different activities to do,” Marissa said of running across Bernheim’s website and seeing the ColorFest. 

While the festival began as a way to celebrate the changing of the leaves at Bernheim, education and discovery have become a major part of the event in the last 20 years. 

“We always had naturalists on a small scale,” doing presentations, said Wren Smith, interpretive programs manager for Bernheim. But the discovery stations really came to fruition in 2003, after Smith started the training program. “We’ve got a whole team of people right now. They learn from each other and it’s built on the idea that if you learn something and give away new knowledge, it becomes more yours.” 

More than 300 have gone through training at some point, and there is a core of about 30 that are really active in the forest, she said. Many of that group were there this weekend. 

To see families gravitate toward those stations with a genuine interest to learn is something that validates her work and the work of the volunteers. 

“Somebody asked me one time what I thought was a distinctive difference between this festival and the others around,” she said. “It’s the amount of nature education that they get,” which is something a lot of fall festivals don’t offer.