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‘Literally almost priceless:’ State College educators give $100,000 endowment to Shaver’s Creek

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Penn State's Shaver's Creek Environmental Center is undergoing major renovations, including new enclosures for its 18 raptors. The center will reopen on Labor Day weekend.
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Penn State's Shaver's Creek Environmental Center is undergoing major renovations, including new enclosures for its 18 raptors. The center will reopen on Labor Day weekend.

A State College couple created a $100,000 endowment to help Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center gather more resources for its school day program and reach underserved school districts in the area.

Joan Turns, a longtime Shaver’s Creek volunteer and school day program coordinator, and her husband, Steve, created the Joan Turns Endowment for School Programs at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center to pay forward Joan’s life’s work as an educator.

“Shaver’s Creek is wonderful, the people are wonderful and the experience has enabled me to continue teaching,” Joan said. “The day program gives children a chance to get outside of the classroom. It is a joy to see the astonishment in their eyes when they turn over a rock and see a salamander for the first time — some kids said the experience was the best day of their whole life.”

Thirty years ago, Joan, a retired biology teacher, would visit Shaver’s Creek with her sons. She started volunteering for the Maple Harvest Festival, and when a position opened up, she took over as school day programs coordinator. When she retired from her role in 2013, she found it hard to step away.

So Steve and Joan, who have lived in State College for 40 years, decided to commit a financial gift that would help Shaver’s Creek well into the future. The $100,000 endowment will be used to secure staff and resources to meet the needs of the Shaver’s Creek school day programs and to help defray the cost of the field trip for underserved schools.

“The staff at Shaver’s Creek does excellent outreach to the community,” Joan said. “The school program was in existence before I came along and will go on after, but the continuation for the children — thousands of children — is imperative.”

Shaver’s Creek Director Mark McLaughlin said the endowment will go primarily toward paying a seasonal staff member to support the school day programs in the spring and fall.

“We’ll always have a need for this kind of position,” he said. “... It’s literally almost priceless.”

The school day programs serve more than 2,000 kids every year, primarily located in school districts in Mifflin and Juniata counties, he said.

“We’re working with those kids in our neighborhood to serve them well,” he said.

Last summer, Shaver’s Creek reopened after two years of renovations totaling $7.5 million, some of which were raised through a building campaign of philanthropic gifts. The school day programs are slowly building up their attendance to what they were before the renovations, McLaughlin said.

Shaver’s Creek is staffed mostly by interns, he said, though there are a number of paid staff members who coordinate, direct and instruct for programs. Those interns come primarily from Penn State’s University Park campus, he said, and receive training to lead educational activities and instruct students.

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Steve and Joan Turns on the bridge at Shaver’s Creek. The couple donated a $100,000 endowment to the center’s school day programs. Trish Hummer Penn State

Steve Turns said Joan has always embodied the secret to being a good teacher — having enthusiasm for the subject matter and empathy for the students. He also comes from an educational background, having spent spent 35 years as a faculty member in the College of Engineering at Penn State and retiring as professor emeritus of mechanical engineering.

“It’s important that (Joan’s) life work be invested in,” Steve said. “I have seen the joy she has had while working with these kids and I vicariously share that with her. I want to see her work continue. Our world depends on how these kids turn out.”

Through her work at Shaver’s Creek, Joan said it was gratifying to see teachers who brought their classes back year after year and who used the material from the school day programs — which included guided nature walks and guided nature center visits — in their classrooms.

“One of the highlights to me was having the children turn over a log and seeing the creatures underneath and expanding that to an educational learning point,” she said. “... The programs were closely aligned with the Pennsylvania standards and I developed the curriculums so that the programs would also be aligned with those standards.”

Ellen Will, director for the Outdoor School at Shaver’s Creek, said Joan’s contributions went well beyond her leadership of school day programs.

“She volunteered in other program areas and for years has been making lovely 19th-century costumes for the cultural history lesson at Outdoor School,” Will said. “When the counselors ask where I got the costumes and I tell them Joan made them, they are always impressed.”

Joan made it clear that her goal in giving the gift is to keep children learning — and retaining the lessons they learn — for years to come.

“For Joan and Steve, (the endowment) is a wonderfully creative way to find a method to support a program that contributes not only to the Penn State community, but the K-12 community all around us,” McLaughlin said.