Tree planted by Callahan School honors teachers’ commitment to nature-based education

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From left are teachers Patricia Lapierre and Rachel Auclair with National Heritage Corridor VIP Julie Riendeau. NRI NOW photo by Sandy Hall

BURRILLVILLE – For more than 20 years, Rachel Auclair and Patricia Lapierre have used nature as their classroom, teaching thousands of Callahan Elementary School students lessons about their environment and history, along with how to be good stewards of the planet.

Now, a sugar maple tree in front of the school will honor the educators’ dedication to the natural world, and the decades of knowledge and inspiration they’ve given to Burrillville students.

“I work with a lot of teachers, and these two go above and beyond,” said Julie Riendeau, a volunteer with the Blackstone Heritage Corridor.

On Friday, April 26, the teachers joined students outside for a extra special lesson, as Burrillville Conservation Commission Chairman Ron Lapierre planted a tree by the entrance to nearby Eccleston Field to mark Arbor Day. The BCC chairman gave the students a brief history of the event, a national celebration of the role trees play in our lives.

First celebrated in Nebraska in 1872, Arbor Day was started by Julius Sterling Morton, a journalist and lover of nature who set out to bring life to what was once a treeless plain.

“Basically, it was just fields,” chairman Lapierre said of the state at the time.

Morton proposed a day to plant trees, with awards given out to those who erected the largest amount, resulting in around 1 million new Nebraskan trees in the event’s first year. His idea took root and the tradition spread, leading President Theodore Roosevelt, to issue an “Arbor Day Proclamation to the School Children of the United States,” in 1907. In 1970, Arbor Day was recognized nationally thanks to efforts by President Richard Nixon, and is now widely celebrated on the last Friday in April.

A tree, chairman Lapierre told the students, provides many benefits, including beauty, inspiration, shelter and shade.

“Once the leaves come out and it blossoms, it will produce some really nice colors,” he said of the freshly-planted greenery, which will grow and take root through the years, much like the educators’ years of outdoor lessons.

The dedication was surprise for Auclair, a third grade Callahan teacher who will retire this year.

Lapierre was teaching second grade when she first contacted members of the National Heritage Corridor to see if a program could be brought to her and Auclair’s students. The teachers have worked closely together over the years, sharing materials and organizing various lessons, such as Friday’s tree planting, which also included a student litter clean up.

“Every year we do the program where we teach the kids about Earth Day,” teacher Lapierre said. “We cleaned up our schoolyard and our field.”

“I’m happy for her and I’m crying at the same time,” she said of her longtime partner in education Auclair’s retirement.

Callahan Principal David Brissette presented a citation to the teachers from U.S. Sen. Jack Reed recognizing their work in, “bringing living history to the classroom.”

Riendeau, known by decades of students as “Ranger Julie,” contacted the BCC and town officials to coordinate Friday’s dedication. The VIP or volunteer in parks for the Heritage Corridor said she has worked with the pair to bring environmental education to the school every month of the school year for 20 years, including programs focused on recycling, wildlife, water quality, fishing, maple sugaring and more.

Riendeau noted the influence such lessons have had on the lives of Callahan students, pointing to the student-led “Stomp Out Styrofoam,” initiative in 2018, which led the school to discontinue use of styrofoam meal trays.

“These teachers plant the seeds for future stewardship for the students and watch them grow into responsible residents for their community,” she said.

Auclair watched as the students watered the new tree and helped to pat down a last bit of soil.

“This is what’s important to them – doing this stuff,” she said of the students. “This is a day they’re going to remember.”

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