Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Touch of Nature Environmental Center. | Southern Illinois University Special Collections Research Center
Touch of Nature Environmental Center traces its origin to the 1940s. Little Grassy Lake was created in 1940 by damming Little Grassy Creek, a tributary of Crab Orchard Lake and the Big Muddy River. It was built as part of federal relief efforts surrounding recovery from the Great Depression. Dr. Delyte W. Morris became President of Southern Illinois University in 1948, and Dr. William “Bill” Freeberg returned to SIU in 1949 after becoming the first in the country to complete a Doctorate of Recreation at Indiana University. Morris and Freeberg led the initiative that established Touch of Nature Environmental Center.
In 1948 Delyte Morris attended a national conference in Washington DC where attendees recognized the need for outdoor education as a part of the national curriculum. In order to initiate a program of outdoor education at SIU, the Board of Trustees granted President Morris the authority to negotiate leases on land in the Little Grassy Lake area from the Department of Interior in 1949. Group camp areas were to be used by the University faculty and students. By 1950, the Board of Trustees had authorized options along the western shores of Little Grassy Lake, and the University had acquired 150 acres of land from the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 1954, the SIU board of Trustees approved the master development plant for the Little Grassy Lake site and it was accepted by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The development of the outdoor education program was co-sponsored by the university and the Educational Council of 100. The Department of Recreation and Outdoor Education was established in July 1954 with Bill Freeberg as chairman, and led the development of camping programs at the Little Grassy Lake Campus. In 1958, a Director of Little Grassy Lake Campus, Kenneth R. Miller, was appointed to act in liaison between the President's Office and the Department of Recreation and Outdoor Education.
Outdoor education pioneer Lloyd B. Sharp accepted a faculty position at SIU in 1959. He previously oversaw Life Magazine’s Fresh Air summer camps in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and opened National Camp in 1940. Life Magazine closed its Life Camps in 1951, but Sharp continued operating National Camp under the newly created Outdoor Education Association. He relocated the Association to SIU and influenced the establishment of the outdoor experiential education facility Touch of Nature. National Camp closed in 1962 and Sharp died in 1963.
In 1963, the Little Grassy Lake Campus was made a separate unit, no longer administered by the Department of Recreation and Outdoor Education, and the name was changed to Little Grassy Facilities. William F. Price was appointed Coordinator. In 1968, Little Grassy Facilities became the central campus for the larger surrounding Outdoor Laboratory. The Underway Adventures was developed by Hank Schafermeyer, a forestry graduate student at SIU, and Tony Calabrese and began in 1969. In 1972 the National Park Service named Little Grassy Facilities a National Environmental Center Landmark, an honor only given to 11 sites in the United States. The name changed to Touch of Nature Environmental Center in 1973. In 1976, Touch of Nature was moved under a new Dean of Continuing Education, rather than reporting to the Vice President for Fiscal Affairs. As of 2016 the Director reports to the Assistant Vice Chancellor of Auxiliary Services under the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.
Bill Freeberg started the Friends of Touch of Nature in 1978 to raise funds and awareness about Camp Little Giant. In 1980, with the cooperation and contracts with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the Department of Corrections, a Youth Advocacy Program was initiated. The program later took the name Spectrum Wilderness Therapy for juveniles at risk. In 1980 Camp Little Giant was awarded the Eleanor P Ells Award by the American Camping Association. Dyna Camp for children with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder began in 1999.
The Environmental Education Program began Eco Camp in 2006 and the Underway Adventures Program began Wild Outdoor week in 2009. In 2013, SIU's Department of Health Education & Recreation began offering classes at Touch of Nature including Land Navigation, Backpacking, Canoeing, Leave No Trace Trainer, Rock Climbing, Therapeutic Recreation and Wilderness Medicine. JD Tanner was named Director of Touch of Nature Environmental Center in 2014. That same year the Therapeutic Recreation Program began for adults with developmental disabilities.
Since 1949, the grounds area has gained more than 3,100 acres of hills and forests that host camps for people of all ages. Touch of Nature Environmental Center was home to the first camp in the world for people with disabilities. It is a place where people learn about the importance of environmental education in the fields of forestry, botany, agriculture and many other outdoor and laboratory involved subjects through experience. The mission of Touch of Nature Environmental Center is to enhance learning, promote professional development, encourage personal and interpersonal development, and increase environmental awareness.