By Kathryn Coulibaly
After a three-year hiatus caused by the pandemic, Wild about Cumberland! returned in spring 2023, bigger than before. Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and Its Tributaries (CU Maurice River), in conjunction with the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, collaborate in this hands-on learning opportunity, which is offered free of charge to Cumberland County students and schools.
Over the course of the three days, more than 600 fourth grade students from 11 elementary schools in Bridgeton, Vineland, Millville, Newport, Port Elizabeth and Port Norris engage in activities designed to teach them about their region’s environment, history and the wildlife that makes the Delaware Bay area their home.
A day at the Bayshore Center
As they pull into the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, school buses full of excited and noisy fourth graders crunch over a driveway of broken white oyster shells. The oyster shells are a reminder of the importance of oysters to the regional economy, which at one time produced 55-60 million oysters annually, shipped across the country on 80 train cars a day.
The Bayshore Center is also home to New Jersey’s official tall ship, the historic schooner A.J. Meerwald. As students exit the buses, they are guided to various stations on the grounds where they will cycle through the many exhibits and activities that have been prepared for them to teach them about the Delaware Bay ecosystem and watershed, the types of animals that call the area home, and the history of oystering and fishing in the region.
A visit with a rescued owl and hawk is one of the highlights of the day and is coordinated by the Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford. As 100 hushed fourth graders look on intently, they learn about the animals’ stories—how they came to be residents at the refuge, what their habits and favorite meals are, and much more.
Students learn about how oysters were harvested, the impact of littering and dumping on the area watershed, and “build a bird,” putting together hand-carved models of regional shore birds, created for them by a local carver.
Inspiring the next generation of Maurice River stewards
The hands-on, immersive activities give Cumberland County students a different look at their home and, hopefully, a sense of responsibility toward preserving it.
“We’re hoping to inspire the next generation of stewards,” says Karla Rossini, executive director of the CU Maurice River.
Rossini and the CU Maurice River team hope to inspire a love of nature and a passion for conservation in the students who participate in their Wild About Cumberland! program.
“The CU Maurice River covers one hundred percent of the cost,” Rossini says. “Schools do not pay for these field trips. Post-pandemic, the busing and insurance costs have doubled, challenging our ability to continue the program, but CU Maurice River works hard to raise more money to cover these costs. We are grateful to the National Park Service Wild and Scenic Program as well as the many corporate sponsors that fund this program including PSE&G, ChemGlass, Century Savings Bank and OceanFirst Bank.”
In addition to the exhibits and activities at the Bayshore Center, a team of more than 30 volunteers leads the fourth graders on nature walks at the PSE&G wetland restoration site on Berrytown Road in Port Norris. Many volunteers are current or retired teachers and/or naturalists. Additionally, volunteers from Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge, AmeriCorps Watershed Ambassadors, the Lenni Lenape tribe and others lead workshops.
“We want to take the classroom experience outdoors,” says Anthony Klock, an NJREA member and former teacher from Kresson Elementary School in Voorhees. Klock also serves as a CU Maurice River trustee and volunteer naturalist. “Too many of our students are spending more time on tablets than in nature. There are a lot of reasons for this, but studies show the value of spending time in nature and its impact on one’s emotional well-being. Too often it is not something that is part of their daily habits, so we need to find ways to make them more comfortable exploring and experiencing the natural world.”
It’s no secret that the hope of all the volunteers with the program is to cultivate a new generation of nature lovers. The Wild about Cumberland! program can help meet that goal.
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A.J. Meerwald sails students into history
Gently rocking at the dock at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve rests the A.J. Meerwald, a Delaware Bay oyster schooner that originally launched in 1928. While at one time more than 500 schooners sailed the bay to catch oysters, the Meerwald is the last of its kind. Instead of catching oysters or serving as a wartime fireboat, the Meerwald’s mission now is education.
Officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Meerwald offers public sails, charters, family and youth camps as well as adult and youth education sails throughout the Delaware River and Bay area, and along the Atlantic coast. Learn more at bayshorecenter.org and follow the AJ Meerwald on Facebook and Instagram.
Support the conservation mission
Engage with the Delaware Bay community, help to preserve history and support conservation efforts by volunteering with the Bayshore Center. Visit bayshorecenter.org to learn more about their fundraising and community events and how to donate and volunteer. You’ll also find free resources for educators at cumauriceriver.org under the Educators tab.