Temple Ambler EarthFest: 17 Years of Sustaining Our Communities

The Elmwood Park Zoo brings a special friend to Temple Ambler EarthFest

For Jeffrey Feathestone, "sustainability" wasn't a buzzword. It was an avocation. He welcomed every opportunity to talk about and showcase sustainable concepts to as wide an audience as possivbe within Temple University and withing the region.

Featherstone described “sustainability” as “the balance between the natural world and the buildings in which we live and work.” He was the founding Director of Temple University’s Center for Sustainable Communities. Featherstone left a giant hole in the Temple University community when he passed away after a sudden and severe illness in 2016 but his even larger legacy, built tirelessly over decades locally, nationally and internationally; in the classroom and out, lives on to this day.

“Sustainability involves protecting our natural resources — our rivers, streams, forests, and air — for today and tomorrow. Nearly half of the global population and more than 220 million people in the United States live in cities,” he said. “Striking that crucial balance between the natural and built worlds is at the heart of the research and projects undertaken by students and faculty in Temple’s Landscape Architecture, Horticulture and Planning programs in the Tyler School of Art (and Architecture)."

Sustainability is one of the legacies that Featherstone leaves Temple,” said Susan Spinella Sacks, Manager of Research and Co-Coordinator of EarthFest Presents programming at Temple University Ambler.

“He had the personality and wherewithal to not only emphasize sustainability in the classroom but outside of it, to other faculty, other disciplines and within the community. And it wasn’t just the Center talking about these concepts,” she said. “Jeff wanted the University to practice not only what he was preaching but what other faculty members were trying to achieve. He helped start the conversation and had the strength to move the University forward and become a leader in sustainability education.”

In fall 2002, faculty from Temple’s Intellectual Heritage program came to Featherstone with an idea for a day-long conference focused entirely on sustainability, which would be held on Earth Day, April 22, 2003. Meetings began soon after about the form and function of the conference and the intended audience.

The day’s conference topics included: “When and how do private and public interests collide,” “Does preservation and conservation mean a rejection of ‘Progress,’” “How might science and social values meet,” “How can business help enhance our natural and cultural heritage,” and “Indicators of sustainability: How can state, county, and local governments assess progress?”

“The environmental movement is essentially a distant memory at this point. We need to refocus,” said Featherstone in November 2002. “During recent Earth Days, there has been very little activity in this area to draw attention to these important issues of sustainability. As a university we want to take a lead role in offering people ways to learn about, discuss, and deal with them.”

It was during those early meetings that a seed was planted that has grown into an annual Ambler Campus celebration — EarthFest, a concept that has expanded to a diverse collection of education EarthFest Presents events and programs held throughout the year.

For tens of thousands of students and educators, it was Featherstone's vision of celebrating sustainability and citizen science that has connected them to people and organizations on the frontlines of environmental stewardship year after year.

“Jeff and I talked about the idea of having an event for the public outside while the conference was taking place inside, something that would bring environmental organizations and companies together to share concepts and ideas. He was all in from the start,” said Jim Duffy, Content Manager at Temple University Ambler and one of the co-coordinators of EarthFest. “That was Jeff — he always valued your opinion and was always willing to share his own insight. We had never done something like this as a campus before but where others might have seen challenges, he saw opportunities.”

Featherstone and Duffy took the idea to Michael Schlotterbeck, then Director of Marketing and Communications at Temple Ambler, who took the ball and ran with it. They also enlisted the aid of Spinella Sacks to turn the concept into reality.

“Through this celebration we want to bring as many facets of sustainability together in one location,” said Featherstone in 2002. “We want to both talk about the idea of sustainability in addition to showing the public practical applications.”

That first year welcomed about 40 exhibitors, which included several Temple University departments in addition to non-profits and government agencies, such as the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Department of Environmental Protection. During the event, the DEP also presented an environmental education grant to the Center for Sustainable Communities to develop curricula and workshops to assist educators in teaching environmental studies.

“Year one was a learning experience from start to finish. We didn’t tent anyone and it poured for the first 90 minutes,” Duffy said. “Then the sun shone through and our 1,500 visitors had a great time. I think that’s an apt metaphor for the event as a whole — what initially seemed impossible to pull off became an event we could all be extremely proud of.”

EarthFest, Duffy said, could have been a one-time event, “but Jeff and Mike, and I think really most of the campus community and administrators, saw the value in it.”

In its second year in 2004, Featherstone proudly announced that “EarthFest will be bigger and better thanks to a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) that will essentially double the size of the event.” Schlotterbeck spearheaded the idea of Temple’s EarthFest and PHS’s Kids Grow Expo and Junior Flower Show becoming one large event hosted on campus, a partnership that lasted for many years that followed. 

“Jeff became a champion for EarthFest. He was there every year at the event main stage welcoming our visitors and sharing a message of sustainability, providing a strong vote of confidence that they could and would make a difference,” Duffy said. “He knew so many people among our exhibitors — groups and organizations that would come back year after year — that I think it must have been like a gathering of likeminded friends getting together with the clear goal of educating and empowering the next generation to protect and preserve the planet we’re leaving them. I think he was particularly pleased that EarthFest included dozens of student-created exhibits each year.”

Since 2003, Temple’s outdoor, educational celebration of Earth Day has welcomed nearly thousands of students, teachers, parents and community members to campus. The creation of EarthFest “will have a lasting impact on the future through its influence on youth and helping to teach them about sustainability and giving them a venue to present and teach others,” said Dr. Vicki Lewis McGarvey, Vice Provost for University College.

Citizen Science for Today and Tomorrow 

Earth Day isn’t just a day, it’s an idea. Everyone at every age has the power to effect change. You can leave the world a better place than you found it.

The need to share ideas about sustainability and protecting and preserving the environment is critical, now more than ever. Today Temple Ambler EarthFest Presents hosts a variety of events, in cooperation with the Ambler Arboretum and other partners.

“We realized that the important themes of EarthFest — sustaining our communities, environmental education and awareness, preserving animal habits, STEM education, emergency management, living healthy — really can’t be contained to a single day each year,” said Spinella Sacks. “Building on what we’ve been able to achieve with a single event, we now host a variety of events designed to get people really thinking about the world around us.”

EarthFest Presents events are designed to provide more personalized opportunities to interact with our exhibitors and students to get hands-on with citizen science. Stargaze with the Delaware Valley Amateur Astronomers and the Bucks-Mont Astronomical Association during Reach for the Stars; celebrate Earth Day each year in April/May; campout on campus in July during the Great American Campout; explore all life in our woods in September at BioBlitz, get hands-on with sustainability for Sustainability Action Day; or gain a under understanding of the wonders of nature at the Science of Scary in October!

“We are constantly exploring new ways to provide engaging, educational opportunities for a variety of audiences. For Read Across America this year, for example, we hosted a special live reading of The Lorax online; numerous classrooms and about 1,000 students joined us,” said Spinella Sacks. “Our goal is to provide meaningful, impactful educational experiences for all ages throughout the year. “Instead of one day and one event, we invite schools and families to celebrate the Earth at several smaller, student and family-centered events.

The first “Temple Ambler EarthFest Presents” event was the Ambler Arboretum BioBlitz in October 2017. EarthFest Presents has held three additional bioblitzes since with additional events planned in the first.

A bioblitz is an event that focuses on finding and identifying “as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time,” said Kathy Salisbury, Director of the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University.

“We want people to realize that the Ambler Arboretum is more than our signature gardens — it encompasses the entirety of the campus,” said said. “Our bioblitz took place over a 24-hour period in a nearly 25-acre section of the arboretum that includes woodlands, meadows and creeks. We were the first group to intensively explore these areas!”

One of the most exciting things about EarthFest Presents, Spinella Sacks said, “is that while our mission remains the same — promote environmental awareness and ways to sustain our communities — every year is a little different to ensure that we are meeting the needs of students, educators and families.”

“We think it is wonderful when schools and families find EarthFest programming for the first time and then keep coming back year after year," she said. "Students learn concepts that they’ve never learned before, ideas that they’ll then take home and share with their parents and friends — that’s where positive change starts.”

Celebrating Earth Day, BioBlitz and the EarthFest Presents “are a chance for people to explore the Ambler Campus and Ambler Arboretum in a completely different way,” said Spinella Sacks.

“I hope it will also get them thinking about the biodiversity in their own backyards and what they can do to support increased diversity. We look forward to exploring with everyone,” she said. "I think the success and impact of EarthFest is certainly a fitting tribute to the legacy of Jeff Featherstone, who helped make sustainable research and education such an essential part of Temple as a whole.”

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