The Mighty Women of Mighty Acorns®

Membership Luncheon award winners

March is Women’s History Month, a celebration of the contributions of women throughout history and today. Spending my career in the conservation realm, I have had a front row seat to the remarkable ingenuity, creativity, passion, and just plain hard work of many women I’ve had the privilege of working with. Many of them have shaped who I am today, and have certainly shaped who The Conservation Foundation is today.

One of our programs in particular comes to mind as having had profound impact across generations through the hands and hearts of some incredible women — our Mighty Acorns® environmental education program. Mighty Acorns® celebrates its 25th year this year, and one of our dedicated employees along with two passionate educators from West Chicago have been there since the beginning.

Anna Leuer with students in the early days of Mighty Acorns® at Currier School

Carolyn Wagner, our Mighty Acorns® Program Coordinator, spent the first few years of her career with Mighty Acorns® delivering the program at a different organization, and then came to The Conservation Foundation, where she has been connecting children with nature through Mighty Acorns® for nearly two decades. She worked under Judy Fitchett, another exemplary conservationist and environmental educator, until Judy retired and Carolyn took over our Mighty Acorns® program. Currier Elementary School in West Chicago was one of the first schools we partnered with to bring the Mighty Acorns® curriculum to their students, and teachers Sue Avila and Anna Leuer were there for the program’s origins at Currier, and have been passionate advocates for it ever since. Together these women have brought Mighty Acorns® to more than 2,000 students!

Sue Avila with Mighty Acorns® students and Carolyn Wagner

“I think this is an excellent program, especially for students who often don’t have the chance to do this type of activity outside of school,” says Sue. “For them to learn about the balance of nature, food webs, circle of life, changing of seasons, evidence of animal presence, importance of controlled burns, plus so much more with first hand experiences is just so invaluable I can hardly put it in words. To see their faces light up with understanding, to hear them ask over and over again, “What is this?” (referring to a plant or unusual insect, etc.), to listen to them exclaim “Look at what I found!” while exploring pond life, to assist them in lopping off invasive species, to watch them collect seeds, plant seeds and then observe some of the plants that previous students planted provides immeasurable joy as an educator (and conservationist).”

We recently honored both Sue and Anna with our first-ever Golden Acorn Award (more on this in a moment). While it was clear they appreciated the well-deserved honor, they both adamantly applauded our Carolyn Wagner for her partnership and her gift for bringing the wonders of nature to life for their students. “It has been my honor to have worked with Carolyn Wagner for almost 25 years,” reflected Anna. “We have spent many hours together planning and she has created engaging multi-disciplinary lessons that stimulate all of the students’ senses. And Carolyn and I have become great friends. I really love enjoying nature with Carolyn and sharing stories about our careers and families.”

Carolyn Wagner delivers a classroom lesson for Mighty Acorns® at Currier School

Sue also has high praise for Carolyn, mentioning her creative scavenger hunt, the bird identification app the students always get excited about, animal pelts and skulls, and the watershed model she brings for the kids to experiment with. But she especially lauds Carolyn’s sincere dedication and genuine care and concern for all of the students she works with. “I really appreciated her efforts during the pandemic when school was exclusively online, making videos showing how the animals and plants adapted to the changing seasons and leading us on a live virtual hike,” remembered Sue. “Since we couldn’t get out into nature in person, she brought it to us!” Sue and Anna are absolutely correct about Carolyn. Knowing her for more than 20 years, I can tell you she cares so deeply about environmental education, about the teachers she works with, and about igniting a lifelong relationship with nature in every student she gets to see.

I mentioned the first-ever Golden Acorn Award that Carolyn and I recently presented to Sue Avila and Anna Leuer. This award was established in memory of Betty Bradshaw, a much beloved past trustee of The Conservation Foundation, and one of our most generous financial donors. She had a deep passion for educating local youth and inspiring in them a sense of wonder for nature. Betty had a profound influence on me, and as her daughter Molly joined us in presenting this award (there’s that generational thing), the word connectors came to mind. All of these thoughtful, genuine and talented women are connected through a love of nature and a love of children. And because of them, the children of today and tomorrow will be connected as well, to each other and to the world around them.


Membership Luncheon award winners


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