June 24, 2004 | By: Aimee Heald-Nielson

For more than 40 years, select high school students interested in forest and environmental issues have attended the University of Kentucky Forest Leadership Program, held in recent years at the College of Agriculture’s Leadership Center in Jabez. This year, for the first time, a student from the Kentucky School for the Deaf was among the group.

Mickie Brunton is your typical, all-American high school student except she can’t hear or speak. At first thought, that might present a challenge in an outdoor learning environment where everyone else is hearing and doesn’t know sign language. But Brunton took it all in stride and found creative ways to communicate through two interpreters and even when there was no interpreter around to help out.

Doug McLaren, agriculture and natural resource Extension specialist for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, said Brunton may have taught her peers and leaders more than she learned herself. He said many of the participants were learning several signs and finding ways to have normal teen-age conversations with her throughout the week.

“It’s like going to a foreign country. She didn’t know our language; we didn’t know hers,” he said. “But as time has gone on this week, we’ve both learned. She’s able to understand us through her interpreters and she’s also teaching us basic signs. It’s been a great learning experience from both sides.”

Brunton is looking forward to college at Eastern Kentucky University. She plans to start 
this summer, majoring in biology and minoring in ecology. 

“I’ve learned so much here,” she said. “I think this will really benefit me and my future at college. I want to teach deaf students, at a deaf school anywhere in the United States, biology or ecology.”

Brunton said her peers didn’t treat her any different than anyone else at camp. She was able to do everything with them from playing ping pong and cards to having conversations at meals. There were some activities that presented more of a challenge, but she found ways to get through them.

“Last night we played a game that was all about speed and that was very hard for me to keep up with everyone and have the interpretation happen,” she admitted. “It’s been fun anyway and I’ve learned so much and definitely benefited from this camp.”

Another first-time element of this year’s camp was a new focus on entomology. McLaren said it was added because a number of participants expressed an interest in how insects interact with the forest environment.

“The students are focusing on different orders of insects and how they affect the forest trees,” he said.

Students such as Javan Rasnake appreciate the variety of learning experiences available at the camp. The Caldwell County High School senior has gone back and forth on deciding between pursuing a career in environmental science or physics. He believes physics will win out, but doesn’t discount his forest and entomology experience.

“I do thoroughly enjoy the environmental sciences,” he said. “I’m not really looking at entomology as a career but I find it interesting. I came to look at the effects of insects on the environment. If I want to change careers later, I will have a firm background in this.” 

Even with new elements added to the camp, the experience still revolves around the forest and working in small groups. Each crew is responsible for working in a certain area and developing a management plan for that area during the week.

Glen Dattilo is a service forester for the Kentucky Division of Forestry, based in Campbellsville. He’s been coming back to the leadership program for many years because he loves to “see the kids learn.”

“Students get an understanding of what forestry is all about,” he said. “They learn how to use the tools, how to measure the trees and how to integrate all the information they gather to produce a management plan for a particular area. It’s fun to get out and show someone how to do what you do and see them learn.”

The day begins at sunrise and doesn’t usually end until very late, but McLaren said the kids respond and say they like the teaching methods. He said they give as much as, or more that you ask of them.

“It’s like being in school, but they don’t see it that way,” he said. “That’s true because we give them opportunities to go outside and be actively involved in the teaching process.”

Regardless of what participants decide to pursue as a career path in the future, McLaren believes their experiences at the Kentucky Forest Leadership Program will benefit them and the communities where they choose to live.

“This program has evolved for more than 40 years. They come in and learn about the resources and how those resources work together. They may become doctors, lawyers or sales clerks in their own communities,” he said. “When issues about the environment come up, they will make decisions based on knowledge, rather than hearsay.”


Writer: Aimee D. Heald 859-257-4736, ext. 267

Source: Doug McLaren 859-257-2703