Environmental education resource branches out

Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network expands its reach and impact in the Basin.

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Creating jobs with a cause

On the black shelving units, well-labelled bins hold items like field guides to butterflies and sturdy binoculars for kids. On a table, child-friendly hand magnifiers and weatherproof clipboards stack neatly, ready for packing and shipping. This is “HQ”: the Invermere headquarters of Canada’s Outdoor Learning Store, an environmental educator’s resource that started in the Columbia Basin but has since bloomed Canada-wide.

“We source things that you couldn’t pick up in your local store, and that are tried and tested by educators,” says Duncan Whittick, Executive Director of the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (CBEEN). This organization runs the online, one-stop-shop for the equipment and materials that environmental educators need.

Due to the pandemic, which “launched outdoor learning into the forefront,” Whittick says, the store recently exploded from a small operation into a national one. He saw an opportunity to create jobs that would build skills while aiding the social enterprise’s growth—and so turned to the Trust.

TWO GOALS IN ONE

To help promote employment during the pandemic—and help people build skills they can continue to use afterward—the Trust offers the Basin Job Experience Program. Through this, organizations and projects that are already being supported by other select Trust programs can obtain a wage subsidy to hire and train employees. By summer 2021, this program had helped 22 organizations create 41 positions.

The organization or project benefits—and so do the employees. The Trust supports CBEEN’s efforts to increase the capacity of environmental educators. Since 2002, CBEEN has connected the region’s environmental educators to information, networking and professional development opportunities—and resources like the equipment they need to teach students in the field.

It also delivers the Wild Voices for Kids program, which has local experts deliver curriculum-linked programs to schools across the Basin. Overall, CBEEN encourages all people to discover and protect nature.

A SOLID TEAM

To meet the store’s growing demand, in March 2021 CBEEN hired Chris O’Shaughnessy. Her role, she says, is “getting the goods out the door to the people”—something Whittick and his family had been squeezing in on weekends for multiple months.

O’Shaughnessy was relieved to get a job during the pandemic that didn’t require up-close contact with customers. In addition, she has started training to become an education assistant. Knowing that resources like this store and CBEEN are available will help her in her career.

Then, in April 2021, Natt Forrest also came on board. In addition to fulfilling orders, she oversees the website and communications. “I wear a few hats,” she says, “which is great.”

Before the pandemic, Forrest had taught therapeutic movement and yoga and focused on applied ecopsychology, a topic in which she has a PhD. But without being able to get together in person with clients, and without the space to offer online services, “I had to, for the most part, pause my business,” she says.

The store offered employment, plus fit with her mission to do work that matters. “To me, it has to be something that betters our world.” Will the experience help her when she restarts her business? “Absolutely,” she says.

A CHAIN OF EFFECTS

Right now, store revenue is reinvested into the social enterprise to help with its growth. In the future, the profits will stream back into CBEEN’s other programs and services. Whittick says that, through these earnings, and by providing environmental educators with resources to do their jobs well, the store is “ticking all these boxes for CBEEN, while at the same time filling this need for others.”

However, according to Whittick, this popular asset may not have rooted as successfully as it has without the wage subsidy from the Trust. “We would have been so over-maxed if we didn’t have that support,” he says. “It has really allowed us to have a far smoother transition to this bigger social enterprise.”

And as the store and its employees thrive, so does CBEEN. Overall, it’s a win for the people in the Basin and the environment they love.

Wage Subsidy Programs

In addition to the Basin Job Experience Program, the Trust also offers several other wage subsidy programs.

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