An Outdoor Classroom for Kids

Town & Country, July 2010.

When Seattle's Debbi and Paul Brainerd went looking for a weekend place on nearby Bainbridge Island ten years ago, they heard that 1,100 acres of forest were being sold off in twenty-acre lots. In­stead of scoping out favorite parcels, Debbi decided that they should buy 255 acres of the undeveloped land and build a school in the woods for kids who rarely had a chance to leave the city. "My husband looked at me like I was crazy," she says now, laughing.

Today Debbi is the founder of lslandWood, an acclaimed environmen­tal learning center that hosts fourth, fifth and sixth graders from inner-­city public schools for four-day, hands-on, outdoor educational programs each week during the school year. For many of the 4,000 students who visit annually, a trip here is their first time away from an urban land­scape. "My husband and I both grew up in neighborhoods with woods where you could play," Debbi says. "But when kids grow up in controlled, built-world environments, they're very disconnected. They don't always have the opportunity to see how the natural world plays a role in providing the resources we need to live."

On a typical day, the nine-, ten- and eleven-year-old campers wake up in bunks de­signed with windows above the pillows so that they can lie in bed and see the trees. Later they spend hours crisscrossing the center on six miles of trails during outdoor lessons or scooping up invertebrates down by the harbor or working with visiting artists on Puget Sound-themed cultural-history projects in cozy LEED-certified studios. 

Debbi and Paul, who is the founder of the Aldus Corporation, which developed PageMaker software, contributed $26 million to the project, but more was required to build IslandWood. "I was told I'd never be able to raise the ad­ditional $26 million I needed when I started, and to be honest, I was daunted because I'd never raised money before," Debbi says. But raise it she did. "Once people understood lslandWood was about connecting educa­tion, the environment, and underserved children, the gifts just came."

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.