Ten years ago, a 1½-acre area behind Seymour-Jackson Elementary School was nothing but a flat, grassy field with one tree.

But once money became available and students and volunteers went to work, it became an outdoor nature lab with hundreds of trees, a pond with a waterfall, gardens with plants and flowers, birdhouses and different types of wildlife. It was named Wildcat Habitat after the school’s mascot.

In 2008, a handicapped-accessible walkway was added and named Addie’s Walk in memory of former student Addie Bryden, who died May 10, 2007. It recently was repaved.

On Thursday, the school invited people who have helped with the projects over the years to a celebration honoring the 10th anniversary of the Wildcat Habitat and the rededication of Addie’s Walk.

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It was a time to reflect on the progress that has been made with the two features, which are open to the public outside of school hours.

Peggy Stark, who retired three years ago after 30 years with Seymour Community School Corp., and her husband, Steve Stark, are the stewards of the Wildcat Habitat.

“When we planted this, it’s wasn’t for us. It was always for the kids, and it’s for the future,” said Peggy, who spent her last 13 years of teaching at Jackson.

“We both think it’s really important that people enjoy the outdoors and the gifts that God has given us,” she said.

“Beyond that, it’s about learning,” Steve said, noting how students had a hand in the design and features of the wildlife habitat.

“Those things were drawn out in a classroom on a grid, and then they were brought out here … and kids built them,” he said. “They had that much pride in this, and they wanted it to be the best.”

Members of the school’s Habitat Club have helped plant and maintain hundreds of trees, plants and flowers over the years.

“There’s scientific proof that when you learn in an area like this, in an outdoor area where you have hands-on and you’re dealing with real-life things and you can teach any subject you want to teach, the learning stays with you longer, you retain it, you remember it and it’s yours,” Steve said. “It’s a habitat, it’s a learning center and it’s for the kids. It belongs to them.”

Steve said the Wildcat Habitat exists because of the vision of former Principal Marti Colglazier and the parent-teacher organization, who came together to form a committee to turn the vision into a reality.

The idea started with a pond but soon expanded.

The Starks went through the Indiana Wildlife Federation and became habitat stewards, which gave them some direction of where to go with the project.

The Wildcat Habitat became certified by the National Wildlife Federation because it has four things needed for an animal habitat — food, shelter, water and a place to raise young.

Along with a pond, the habitat includes a butterfly garden, a sensory garden, raised flower beds, an Indiana Garden, a prairie, birdhouses, trees and a shed. It’s all enclosed by a fence.

Addie’s Walk meanders through the wildlife habitat. Two years after the habitat’s groundbreaking, the crushed stone path was added to make it possible for students with special needs, especially those in wheelchairs or those who have to use walkers, to have access to the area.

“There have been so many fantastic things that have happened here, and Addie’s Walk is probably one of the biggest and best,” Steve Stark said.

At age 3, Addie Bryden joined the developmental preschool class at Jackson. She was born with Cornelia de Lange syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes a range of physical, cognitive and medical challenges. It’s estimated to occur in one in every 10,000 live births.

Addie’s father, Bill Bryden, said it’s common for those with Cornelia de Lange syndrome to not live past age 5. Some don’t have full limbs, and severe neurological impairments are common, he said.

In 2007, when students started planting trees in the Wildcat Habitat, Addie’s teachers took her out in her wheelchair so she could help plant one herself.

“They got her out of the wheelchair and grabbed her hands and put them on the shovel, and they dug the hole and had her hands and put them on the tree when they put the tree in the ground,” Bill said.

That tulip poplar tree was only a sapling at the time. Now, it’s about 20 feet tall.

The crushed stone walkway, however, wasn’t favorable for wheelchairs and walkers.

After Addie died May 10, 2007, the walkway was named in her honor, and her teachers organized a run/walk fundraiser and other funds were gathered so the walkway could be paved.

“Addie was full of life, she was full of fun, she loved butterflies and bubbles and balloons and the color pink and Addie loved to ride down bumpy roads,” said Nancy Cherry, Addie’s preschool teacher who has since retired. “So when this habitat started, it was perfect for Addie because she loved every minute she was bumping over this in her stroller.”

Cherry said she was glad when the walkway was paved so the wildlife habitat was accessible to everyone.

A couple of years ago, the walkway had deteriorated, so the Habitat Club and PTO began raising money to resurface the trail.

Then earlier this year, Assistant Principal Karla Bohle asked the school board to allow the school to pay $9,700, or half the cost of the project, from its capital projects fund.

The school board approved that request.

All Star Paving in Seymour was awarded the project and completed the work, and that was unveiled during the recent celebration.

Bill Bryden was joined by his wife, Lois, and daughter, Chloe, in cutting a ribbon before those in attendance walked along the pathway and learned all about the Wildcat Habitat from members of the Habitat Club.

“We were thrilled, we were honored and we were really happy to see the much-improved walk that is that much better for the wheelchairs,” Bill said.

The family also is honored to have Addie’s name associated with the walkway.

“It means a lot. I like that people will always be able to know her and remember her,” said Chloe, a junior at Seymour High School.

“It is a result or an example of showing how much the adults here loved Addie,” said Lois, a teacher at Seymour-Redding Elementary School. “Her teachers would share wonderful stories and experiences with us, and all of this came about as a result of everyone just loving Addie.”

Bill said that was a magnified perspective of the love those teachers have for all of their students.

“I think God works in mysterious ways, and I don’t know very many 4-year-olds, let alone 4-year-olds who never walked, never talked, who have inspired so many people to do very good things,” Bill said.

Addie also inspired people in their church and in the community, Bill said.

“She brought out the best in hundreds of people,” he said. “How many 4-year-old kids accomplish that?”

The Brydens also like the progress that has been made on the Wildcat Habitat.

“I find it an even more peaceful place to be because of the growth, and I very much enjoyed my loop tonight walking around,” Lois said.

“You want to get kids away from the video games, YouTube and their smartphones. They need to have hands-on experience to realize, ‘Hey, there’s more to life than my smartphone,'” Bill said. “If you want to give them that appreciation, you’ve got to give them the experience and the hands-on.”

The Wildcat Habitat can be used by any of the school’s nearly 700 students, and it’s maintained by the 42 members of the Habitat Club, who meet after school for an hour each Thursday.

Karen Dobrinski, the current leader of the club, said students have to have a parent’s approval and a teacher’s recommendation to apply to be in the club. Dobrinski, school administrators and Peggy Stark give the final approval.

“Over 100 kids apply, so we call it one of the prestigious clubs in our school,” Dobrinski said.

The club meets outside in the wildlife habitat except during December and January, when they do activities indoors.

“For the kids, they can physically see life science,” Dobrinski said of the Wildcat Habitat. “They can come out here, and the teachers can go, ‘What can we get in the pond? What can grow in the pond? What is in the forest?’ We physically can see those things. I think the kids understand, ‘Oh, animals need a place for shelter and food and all of those things just like we do.'”

Fourth-grader William Mahoney is in his fourth year in the Habitat Club. He said he has liked being able to help maintain the Wildcat Habitat, specifically the pond.

“We’ve cleaned it up some, and you can watch it change throughout the seasons, where you see the lily pads sometimes come and go and you’ll see the frogs and crawdads go,” he said. “I like being out in nature, being a part of something.”

At a glance

The Wildcat Habitat and Addie’s Walk are on a 1½-acre site behind Seymour-Jackson Elementary School, 508 B Ave. East, Seymour.

They are used by students and staff members throughout the school year. The public is invited to visit the area every day after school hours.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.