Local Special Needs Students Connect With Nature at Medard Park

By Tamas Mondovics

A small group of students from Pepin Academies got a chance to get up close and personal with nature earlier this month during a morning trip to Medard Park.

Pepin Academies are tuition-free charter schools committed to creating professional learning communities through practices and programs that meet the needs of students with learning disabilities.

The field trip, which involved learning about the park, its 700-acre reservoir, as well as many of the creatures that the park is known for in and out of the water, was possible thanks to the generous and giving spirit of Pepin Academies and Hillsborough County’s 4H Club Tech Wizard mentor program volunteer, Paula Retter, who also works for the Rotary’s Camp Florida in Brandon.

“We can teach the students about all of this in the classroom, but events like these where they can experience nature first hand is what seals the deal as well as helps them realize what they are interested in doing perhaps for life,” Retter said.

To make the day extra special for the students, Retter was joined by local fishermen, Captains Woody Gore and Eddie Caldwell, both of whom have bought their own fishing vessels for the group to take voyages.

“The kids were awesome,” Gore said. “They really got involved, asked a lot of questions and were just so excited about being on the water that it all made it worthwhile. I would definitely come out again and offer my boat.”

With a baby alligator and a talking crow in his arsenal of creatures to show and tell, Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) Officer, Greg Patterson was also on hand to teach these kids about fishing and wildlife.

“The kids really loved it,” Patterson said, after the event adding, “The kids always want to touch. For these groups of special needs kids it was a great way to connect to nature, which was clearly written on their faces. I am sure this will stay with them for a long time.”

Edward Medard Park is a popular recreation area, hosting 500,000 visitors annually, with its reservoir being the main attraction. Aside from its spacious boating dock, a boardwalk fishing pier leads to an observation tower across the reservoir. Recreational opportunities include bicycling, incline skating, camping, fishing and hiking to name a few.

Of course for the small group of Pepin students spending a couple of hours at the park under Retter’s supervision and the support of the members of the community is a whole new experience.

“Today these students learned a bit more about life, hands on skills not to mention team work,” said Retter, whose 18-year-old daughter, Carissa is diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome.
Proving her moms point, Carissa was happy to share her take on the field trip, especially her favorite part of seeing the alligators and being out on the water with Captain Gore.

“I wasn’t scared,” she said excitedly. “I loved it and I would like to do it again.”

Today, Pepin Academies has grown to serve over 850 students with a main campus in Tampa, a campus in Riverview and its latest addition in New Port Richey.

For more information about Pepin Academies, visit www.pepinacademies.com. For more info about The Rotary’s Camp of Florida in Brandon, visit www.rotaryscampflorida.com.