Things are buzzing over at the Audubon Conservation Education Center and it’s not just the flying insects.
Two new programs are launching next month at the center at 7026 S. Billings Blvd. The Fledgling Nature Preschool starts Sept. 8, the first nature preschool in Billings. And starting Sept. 14, the whole family can visit the center and explore the natural world every Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m.
Funding for both programs will get a boost from the Evening Under the Big Sky fundraiser, set for Sept. 6 from 5:30 to 10 p.m. in the tent on the grounds of the center.
The fundraiser includes dinner prepared by chefs from Billings, a no-host bar, live music from Kemmick and Friends, and live silent auctions, offering up paintings by Nick Lamb, Loren Entz and Sarah Morris and a South African safari.
Center director Darcie Howard has been working with community members, volunteers, and staff and board members to bring new features to the center, which is situated on 54 acres of reclaimed land along the Yellowstone River.
On Sundays, a naturalist will be available to provide information and give tours. And, equipment, including fishing poles, will be available for families to use. Once a month, volunteers and staff will assist families with canoeing on the largest pond at the center. All family events are free and open to all.
Howard is excited about the new Fledgling Nature Preschool, which will start with six children between age 3 and 5. The goal is to get those kids outside experiencing the natural world 80 percent of the time.
“This is a test to see how the community likes it,” Howard said. “It is something that I ultimately would like to have where we are doing a full-day preschool option.”
The full-day option would require renovations to the existing building so Howard said the launch this fall will help determine public interest before they take that initiative. There are openings for preschool classes, which will meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, planning for a natural play area is underway.
“The goal would be to have the community put it together on Earth Day 2015,” Howard said.
The natural play area will recreate a walk through a wooded area along the Yellowstone River.
“Having a designated spot for the kids to explore makes people feel safer,” Howard said. “Parents feel more comfortable to let them climb that tree or hop on that rock in a natural setting.”
Money raised at the Evening Under the Big Sky will benefit all programs and a portion of the live auction will allow patrons to donate money to specific programs.
The center operates with three full-time staff members, including Howard, two permanent part-time staff members who work 20 hours per week, and five part-time teachers.
The center, which offers outdoor classrooms and an experienced staff of naturalists and educators, provides after-school and school programs throughout the year. The building was constructed in 2000 and the surrounding area, once the site of gravel pits, was restored to natural habitats with much of the work accomplished by community volunteers. The center relies on donations to support its education programs and efforts to restore wildlife habitat.
Over the last year, at least 4,400 people visited the center. Ninety percent of those visitors were between the ages of 4 and 12.