BRYANT POND — The summer of 2020 has basically been cancelled, especially for kids who, after three months of distance learning and sheltering at home, were due some fun and inspiration.

Bryant Pond 4-H Camp had to suspend all summer programs and camp sessions but it did not give up on finding ways to engage the youth it serves. Starting with virtual sessions begun last spring as a way to support SAD 17 educators in distance learning and adding new programs for quarantine activities, camp directors were able to connect with not just those who were unable to attend, but campers from previous years and underserved kids who had never even been involved with 4-H before.

A photo and note Bryant Pond 4-H Camp received: “Thank you so much for the use of the fishing kits. My family had a great time! Here is is a photo of Cody-Ann and Cassidy from Sunday. It inspired my husband and I to renew our fishing licenses.” Supplied photo

Distance learning

According to Program and Camp Director Ron Fournier, even though the facility has been closed to the public since March, his smart phone and Zoom sessions made it possible to stay in contact with students during the distance learning period.

“Towards the tail end of the school year we went into virtual classrooms supporting second and fourth graders in SAD 17 once a week,” Fournier said. “We did that for seven weeks and our focus was on ecology – watersheds, wildlife, and how it all connects. Each lesson would build on the next one the next week.

“There was still snow on the ground when we started. Basically, I would go out with my phone in my hand and explore [around camp]. Kind of channel my inner Steve Irwin. I would go out to the pond and show them frogs and tadpoles to identify. We would talk about metamorphosis and stuff like that. I made it fun and engaging and would sometimes be silly. At one point I almost fell in the river during the watershed lesson.”

Fournier made each session interactive to keep the students engaged and encouraged questions. He did not make things easy on himself, trekking outside for a lesson on watersheds during a torrential rain. But what better way to demonstrate how watersheds work than with Mother Nature calling the shots?

“I said, ‘class, glad you’re joining me and this is the driest I’ll be for the next hour.’ And out the door I went.” Fournier laughed. “I started with water as it washes down into the lake and went backwards, up the streams and cascading waterfalls to the top of the mountain and then back down in a loop.

“I was able to show them sedimentation and how a watershed works. I was soaking wet, trying to keep my phone dry and the kids were right into it. It made a lot of sense to them.”

Fournier feels that participating in the kids’ distance learning helped with the teachers, providing an alternative voice and face on the screen and giving the kids an educational diversion to look forward to. As many students in SAD 17 take part in programs at Bryant Pond Learning Center year-round it also provided a sense of consistency for them.

“I was as hands on as I could be,” Fournier said. “I did a lesson on survival and had the kids figure out what to put in their own survival kit and show them on the screen. I gave fire and shelter lessons and kept it in the moment.”

Fournier’s lessons for students did not end when the Zoom session ended. At the end of each virtual period he would give them a final de-briefing and a kind of homework assignment.

“I’d instruct them as after-class learning to put on their boots and go outside themselves,” Fournier said. “Check out the mud puddles, build a little dam in the stream. Whatever the theme of the week was, I encouraged them to go put into practice what they saw me do. Roll over logs to find salamanders, look for different tadpoles and aquatic insects in their ponds.

“The next week I’d have the kids tell everyone in the Zoom session what they did after the last lesson. They were able to share their own learning and they were engaged in it.”

Activity kits

When the school year ended in June Fournier and the staff he was able to retain assessed what they had to work with considering public gathering restrictions and how they would be able to continue engaging youth from a far.

Their first effort departed from virtual contact. They created kids’ activity kits based on four different outdoor exploration themes: family fishing, wildlife and animal tracking, backyard gardening and bird watching. Some kits are for keeps and some lent out to families on request for one to two week periods.

“All four of activities we selected have really risen in popularity because of the pandemic,” Fournier said. “We landed on targets that have been very valuable. They are meant to inspire backyard adventures for families or kids/siblings individually and the feedback on them has been great; parents have sent pictures of their kids fishing, sometimes it’s been first time they’ve ever fished as a family and it caused them to go out to buy licenses and enjoy new activities together.”

Bryant Pond 4-H Camp is lending fishing kits to encourage outdoor family activities.

The fishing kit comes with rod plus tackle box. It has instructional cards about learning to fish and identification, recipes and how-to on how to cook and clean fish. It also has information from Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, like maps on where to go fishing and a family guide from 4H on for recipes, crafts and outdoor activity ideas. The kit generally has one rod, but for larger families Bryant Pond include extras.

“The fishing kits have been a way for us to get the equipment we have here used. It doesn’t do us any good for it to sit around when there are kids who can benefit by getting outdoors and be active.

The tracking kit is one that families are able to keep. It comes with tracking cards that show how to identify different wild animals, their habits and habitats of where to find them. It includes a small amount of plaster of paris so kids can actually make a cast of tracks they find, and a scale to use for measuring tracks and distance between them.

For back yard gardening Fournier said his staff built a starter kit for kids. They distributed it earlier in the summer but phased out once planting season was over. It came with plastic hand tools, peat pots, seed starter kits, random seeds and information on growing certain types of vegetables. It also had a journal for kids to document their work, like how much they were watering and how the plants grew and blossomed.

Bryant Pond 4-H Camp’s backyard birding kit. Supplied photo

“The bird watching kit is very popular,” Fournier said. “It comes with a bird-watching guide, binoculars, and instruction for several versions of DIY bird feeders using natural materials. It also has online resources for people to learn ways to attract birds to their yards and good places to find them.

“What we heard from parents about this kit is that it was a way for families to get out on hikes and visit new places.”

Fournier said all the kits have laminated cards with prompting questions to add a level of education about the activities, The fishing kit prompts ask kids to think about where they got the most bites, what was the best bait they used, what time of day did they catch the most fish. The prompt card in the bird kit encourages kids to think about what types of birds are in their back yards and what types live in the forest. It helps kids learn how different animals live in different habitats and rely on different eco-systems.

“There are no wrong answers to the questions,” Fournier said. “They are all open-ended questions to incite a sense of inquisitiveness. They are geared to help the kids think about what they did and saw.”

The activity kits brought a small, unexpected monetary bonus for Bryant Pond 4-H Camp.

“If we have no onsite programming, we get no revenue from tuition,” Fournier said. “But due to the popularity of those kits, RSU 10 and SAD 17 asked to partner with us on them. The districts each had money from 21st Century Grant Funds that made it possible for us to build more kits. We made 80 different kits to be used in summer after-school programs. That was a big help in helping us fund staff time.

“The kits have been a huge win. We were able to reach a new audience with the kits at camp and we’re circulating 80 other kits through the districts’ communities. Other 4H leaders have requested kits as well. Some county offices made their own kits and we sent another 20 to the 4H office in Washington county. These kits were a great way for us to get kids outdoors and active while social distancing.”


Fournier is particularly proud of one other new program Bryant Pond 4-H Camp implemented to engage kids stuck in quarantine, teenagers who are in Maine’s foster care system. In addition to lessons about nature, the program focused on communicating with kids about making healthy choices and forming healthy relationships.

“We partnered with Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Health and Human Services to connect kids with nature,” said Fournier. We presented one virtual session on outdoor preparedness and a second one on hiking, backpacking and wilderness survival. And then we added a third session where we captured the themes from our activity kits – fishing, bird watching and animal tracking.

“Teenage foster children are a sorely underserved group. We were able to engage 30 individuals we would not have normally seen. Each participant received a starter-kit to get outdoors and make their own connections in the natural world—a backpack with an AMC field guide, rain jacket, hooded sweatshirt and base layers from our Bryant Pond supply.”

The goal for the three organizations was to help troubled youth find peace in the outdoors and for themselves.

“But it was also a way to talk with teens about having healthy relationships,” Fournier emphasized. “We talked about safe dating practices, about fishing or hiking with other people. It’s a new way to help kids learn about healthy choices when they are under pressure from others to fall back on other, unproductive activities.

“Now we are a resource for them to find new activities. They are reaching out to me and asking about places they can to do their own fishing. These are kids that have never been connected to 4H until now. Maybe some of them will enroll in other 4H programs. Reaching non-4H youth with our programming has been a major accomplishment.”

The program was funded by grants through the state agencies and the three groups have decided to keep working on it. They are pursuing additional grants and planning new sessions to start back up in the fall and continue them through next spring. Kids can participate whether their school is open or remote.

Fall plans

Bryant Pond Learning Center has traditionally worked with schools in Oxford county on experiential education programs year-round. While the Maine Department of Education has green lighted schools in all counties to reopen, Fournier said with restrictions and guidelines subject to shift on little notice the camp is adjusting its fall plans to a more narrow scope and hopes to expand it again for spring sessions.

“We need to work out our regular school programming going forward,” he said. “Most [districts] have deferred their fall programs with us until next spring since things change so rapidly. In lieu of what we normally do, this fall we are focusing support for SAD 17 schools and Telstar Academy freshmen from SAD 44.

“We are rediscovering that kids actually thrive when they go outdoors to learn. We’re looking to create more outdoor classroom spaces here for kids. Covered spaces like pavilions, and natural venues where the students can spread out. We are here to support learning hands-on in an experiential way that educators can dovetail with their class curriculum.”

Fournier and his staff are working with local administrators to iron program details but he expects Bryant Pond Learning Center will support SAD 17 with robust fall sessions with rotating classes able to use the camp space and stay safe within Center for Disease Control guidelines.

“Rather than having a high volume of kids coming in at once we can work closely with those two districts to do our best work and make safety the highest concern,” Fournier said. “Beyond the fall, we are looking at bringing more schools back for winter activities – snow shoeing, ice fishing, hiking.

“Our goal is to tie it to the schools’ curriculum. Keep their time here applicable to their learning and provide value to teachers. We are taking the experiential education model into their classrooms by pulling the classrooms outdoors.

Support needed

Despite the innovative ways Bryant Pond 4-H Camp has found to continue engaging local youth during an unprecedented time, Fournier says it has been hard seeing camp stay so quiet this summer.

Bryant Pond 4-H Camp has remained eerily quiet all summer. Supplied photo

“In a way it’s hard to be here with it so quiet,” he said. “Normally we’d have several groups of campers, probably 120 or more, doing a wide range of activities. Canoeing, boating, fishing, archery, hiking, geology, arts. We usually have 50 seasonal employees leading activities and instruction. But now we can only have three people working onsite at essential functions and three people working remotely.”

A quiet camp is a camp with no revenue to operate.

“Even though we are part of the University of Maine, our revenue is largely generated by camp tuition, with some grant support,” Fournier said. “Being unable to run our programs, our funding has essentially stopped. Now more than ever we need support to help weather through the pandemic and keep serving Oxford county communities.”

Fournier said people can support Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center with direct online donations at and through the Maine 4-H Foundation.

“We keep our Facebook page updated about the different things we have going on,” he said, adding that people can also contact his office directly at 207-665-2068 to learn more about its youth programs and services.


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