New bridge at Belwin Conservancy connects students to nature

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On Oct. 5, Belwin Conservancy and St. Paul Public Schools celebrated the completion of a new footbridge that will allow students of all abilities to access outdoor education opportunities. SPPS Superintendent Joe Gothard, Belwin Executive Director Nancy Kafka, Belwin Outdoor Science Education Director Josh Leonard, Kim Lawler of Tree Trust, and others officially opened the new span at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The bridge replaced an aging, worn-out structure that was difficult for students in wheelchairs and with other disabilities to use. The Belwin Outdoor Science program is designed to give all children a chance to be immersed in the natural world.

"This bridge symbolizes something for all students, because it is so strong," Gothard said, addressing students from Washington Technology Magnet School and the Benjamin E. Mays School. "It not only connects you to nature, but to each other."

Gothard also shared his own passion for science, which he said started during his own years in school. While his family did not participate in outdoor activities, it was through his school in Madison, Wis., that he first paddled a canoe, made a campfire and other memorable experiences. It eventually led him to work as a science teacher before serving as an administrator.

The bridge crosses Bulrush Slough, a wetland complex important to Belwin Outdoor Science's curriculum. While the water is only a few feet deep, the muddy bottom meant builders needed to install footings 40 feet down to rest on solid bedrock.

Through a unique partnership that has lasted more than 40 years, more than half a million children have experienced nature and learned about environmental science at the dedicated 250-acre site at Belwin. Belwin Outdoor Science serves more than 10,000 St. Paul Public Schools, including every third- and fifth-grade student in the school system, about 1,000 middle and high school students, and about 1,800 special education students.

"Belwin is proud to provide this bridge and all our other facilities for students to access nature," Kafka said. "Connecting kids and the natural world is so important, and this bridge will carry many small feet to life-changing experiences."

Students from Washington Technology Magnet School and the Benjamin E. Mays School were the first to walk across the bridge after the ribbon was officially cut. They spent the day like many others have: exploring the ponds, forests and prairies, experiencing the joy and wonder of the outdoors, and learning about the ecosystem and how science lets us see the environmental connections.

The bridge was designed and built by St. Louis Park-based nonprofit Tree Trust. It was funded with support from individual donors to Belwin Conservancy, including major contributions by Jean Hays and Sharon Glasrud, and a corporate employer matching contribution by Medtronic.