WHITE SPRINGS — When writing his "Life in White Springs" column for the Jasper News, little did Walter McKenzie imagine that his brief mention of the STEM summer program would result in a significant donation to the start-up program.
But that's what happened last week, and his coverage of the non-profit STEM in the Stephen Foster State Park summer camp prompted an area resident to provide a telescope to the group.
Milt Hays, of Live Oak, saw McKenzie's column about the new STEM camp — set for a trial run at Stephen Foster State Park this summer — and decided to donate one of his telescopes to this effort. As he put it, "It's perfect for young people just getting started in astronomy, and it performs nicely on the sky."
On the strength of the column, he obtained the group's contact information and made arrangements for the instrument to be transferred to Helen Miller's organization. Miller incorporated Project HOPE in January, and obtained the non-profit 501c3 designation at the end of March.
With a very short planning window, Miller contacted Manny Perez, park manager of the Stephen Foster, about a possible venue for a proposed STEM in the Park summer camp to focus on science, technology, engineering and math applications for area youth. Perez agreed to partner by providing a facility for the camp and by incorporating Park Rangers as key personnel through the Jr. Ranger Program. The partnership will use Project WILD (TM), K-12 curriculum and activity guides, a wildlife-focused conservation education program for PreK-12 educators and their students, which is administered by the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. Park Ranger Kim Rivers is the "train the trainer" liaison for Project HOPE's camp.
A case of good timing
Miller also contacted McKenzie and asked if he would add a few sentences about the STEM camp in his weekly column for the Jasper News.
"When Milt called me out of the blue and offered the telescope, I was speechless for a few moments, but fortunately came to my wits quickly enough to say 'thank you, I would be happy to accept,’" said Miller. "How this donation came about is a great example of the power of local journalism, even in this digital age where social platforms are the new standard for communication. It's stories like this that remind us we are very fortunate we still have access to small, rural, hometown newspapers."
Hays' interest in astronomy has roots in his childhood. Back in the 1950's, Jacksonville residents associated with the old Jacksonville Children's Museum (now the Museum of Science and History) organized a summer program called "Duval Discoverers" that offered young people instruction and field trips in all ares of the natural sciences. Milt's mother was a teacher, and when she became aware of the program, she immediately signed him up. This led to him joining the junior astronomy club at the museum. Milt's hope is that through his telescope donation, another generation of young people will have an opportunity to travel to the stars and to begin their own understanding and love of astronomy.
"Mr. Hays made me promise that the telescope wouldn't live in a box, that it wouldn't be hidden away in some storage closet, but that it would be used as much as possible by kids of all ages," said Miller. “With other people ‘stepping up’ to volunteer their time and effort to this program, it should be a great summer experience for our young people.”