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Nature Center Is An Urban Oasis For Boston Youth08:39
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The Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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Just beyond the city's Franklin Park, at the end of the Emerald Necklace, is a hidden gem.

Julie Brandlen is director of the Boston Nature Center, which is operated by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. She says the 67-acre wildlife sanctuary in Mattapan is one of the city's best-kept secrets.

"People who know us, know us well," Brandlen said, "and then there are those people [who] don't know us at all."

You'll find the Boston Nature Center behind a busy, forested stretch of the American Legion Highway. But walk just a few paces into the woods, and the sounds of the city quiet, and the natural world takes over.

The center is behind a busy stretch of the American Legion Highway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The center is behind a busy stretch of the American Legion Highway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Mass Audubon built the nature center 15 years ago. There are two miles of trails through meadows and woodlands. A boardwalk protects 10 acres of wetlands as Canterbury Brook meanders through, creating an ecological magnet, a safe haven for more than 150 species of birds.

"You hear the red-winged blackbird, you can hear the tree swallows, the American robin — all here in the middle of Mattapan," Brandlen said.

In Boston's most densely populated neighborhood, the wildlife sanctuary is an urban oasis — free and open to all.

"Ideally, what we want to do is bring the community to the Boston Nature Center but also bring the Boston Nature Center to the community," Brandlen said.

The surrounding community is richly diverse. Signs and pamphlets at the center are in English, Spanish and Creole. The name "Mattapan" comes from Native Americans who hunted and fished here. It means, "A good place to be."

Today, the neighborhood is home to the nation's third-largest Haitian community, including many wage-earning parents who need a good place for their kids to be when school is out.

The center runs science programs at five Boston schools and environmental education camps during school breaks.

"We adjust our programs to meet the needs of our community," Brandlen said. "So that when our community says to us ... that we need to open earlier, and we need to stay open later, then we do that."

Hands-On, Or Rather, Hands-In-The-Dirt Learning

A vacation week program at the Boston Nature Center (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)
A vacation week program at the Boston Nature Center (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

During April school vacation week, the grounds at the Boston Nature Center camp were still wet from melted snow. And the youngest campers, 5-year-old "Owls," turned a puddle-wonderful world into an outdoor classroom. A worm slithering into the soil was a particular attraction.

It was in that same spot, almost 200 years ago, that a young teacher took solitary walks along Canterbury Brook. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later call the marsh in Mattapan "the playground of my youth."

At morning circle, campers sang and stretched and traded jokes. They were warm-ups for the day's events ahead: a mini-safari in the meadow, experiments building rivers, hiking the woods and dressing up like plants. It's Mass Audubon's "Hands On, Minds On" teaching method in action.

A hundred kids, pre-K to middle school, attend spring break camp. In the summer, 1,000 students enroll, their parents paying what they can afford.

Carlos, 15, from Roslindale, was a camper. Now he's a youth leader, a counselor earning money for college.

"There's not many places in Boston where you can be out in nature and experience all these things, and I just wanted to have other kids have the same experience that I did," he said.

Neah, 14, said she had no choice in coming to camp and that without it, she'd be stuck at her mom's "boring" work. And Danny, from Dorchester, said if he weren't at camp, he'd likely be at home playing video games.

Benjamin, 16, from Jamaica Plain, discovered a new hobby at camp.

"We went birding, and we just went to find lots of different birds," he said. "And that's the first time I did it, and I never realized I could've liked something like that."

Back Bay Money For Mattapan Land

Anne Brooke is a force for nature. As a member of the Massachusetts Audubon Society board, 20 years ago she realized the Boston-based organization lacked an urban sanctuary.

"I felt that we were not serving the inner-city community that needed it more than anybody," she said.

But where to put it? Brooke found an old natural reserve in dire need: the abandoned Boston State Hospital property.

"I do remember my first time to the property. It was an old, dirt road and many of the old hospital buildings were still there, falling down and crumbling, and the property was sort of being used by the local neighborhood as a dump.," she said. "Oh, it was terrible. But you could see the potential. You had to have a little vision."

And a lot of money. The city land was cheap — $10 an acre — but turning it into a nature center, you're talking big bucks.

"People didn't get it," she said. "Menino got it."

As in former Mayor Thomas Menino. He convinced a local foundation to build a state-of-the-art green building for the nature center's headquarters and classrooms. Still, Brooke's vision required $10 million.

"I've always felt, because I guess I'm a Yankee, that you get the money first and then you do the work," she said.

Brooke is an original Boston Brahmin. Her family dates back to the 1630s here. She and her husband live in a Back Bay brownstone across from the Public Garden (she's chair of the Friends of the Public Garden board).

But Brooke found the Boston Nature Center a hard sell.

"Individuals who are capable of supporting activities like this had no idea where Mattapan was," she recalled. "You say, 'Can you tell me how to get to Mattapan?' They'd look at you like you had four eyes. I mean Mattapan — 'I don't know where that is.' "

"Oh no, no I had never been to that part of the world," said Peter Brooke, Anne's husband, who essentially invented international venture capital. But even he had trouble convincing his philanthropic friends to back the nature center. It wasn't the money; it was the distance and difference. Mattapan is seven miles from the Back Bay, but a world apart.

"If we could get more people from the center of the city to go there and see the excitement, that's all you need to do," he said. "When they come, their eyes open into a whole new vision of what the world is about."

You can say the same thing about the inner-city students lucky enough to participate in the Boston Nature Center's programs.

But there's a waiting list: 70 kids long for 20 spots in its new preschool program. And Brandlen, the director, is hoping to expand the in-school science program citywide.

"Wouldn't it be fantastic to be in every Boston public school and to engage children in understanding their own backyards?" she said. "You know, that's really what it's about. It's having children engage in the environment so that ultimately, they'll have a sense of a love and appreciation for nature."

This segment aired on May 18, 2015.

Bruce Gellerman Twitter Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman is an award-winning journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.

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