DuBOIS — Thanks to the support of Michael and Tina Sabados and the Keystone Elk Country Alliance (KECA), students in the DuBois Area School District will have the opportunity to visit the Keystone Elk Country Alliance Visitor Center & Educational Facility for years to come.

“On behalf of my husband and I, we have donated $12,500 in partnership with the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, who is going to match our donation,” said Tina Sabados. “They (KECA) will hold the funds in an endowment so that the fourth- and ninth-graders, including life skills students, will attend in-person field trips to the center commencing in the 2022-23 school year.”

The partnership will also enable distance learning programs that aid in the enhancement of the district’s curriculum by providing a hands-on learning experience for the students, Sabados said.

“The ultimate long-term goal is that starting in 2022, that each and every student that goes through the DuBois Area School District, at some point, they will be able to the Visitor Center at least twice,” said KECA President and CEO Rawley Cogan. “It’s going to take us a little bit to get to everybody — fourth and ninth — but let’s get them when they’re really young and then solidify some of those concepts when they’re in ninth grade.”

KECA is a Pennsylvania-based non-profit organization which operates and manages the Elk Country Visitor Center in Benezette, he said.

“Our number one mission priority is conservation education. So we feel it’s critically important that students get an idea of the value of our natural resources and what better mascot than Pennsylvania’s Elk,” said Cogan.

With more than a half a million people visiting the center annually, Cogan said many are students, but a lot of them are adults.

“We have a banquet here (DuBois) hosted by the local chapter. It’s called the Ah’Tic Chapter. The local businesses and the people support us just tremendously,” said Cogan. “This is our way of giving back to the DuBois area saying, ‘We appreciate what you’ve done for us. Here’s what we’re going to give back to the community for our children.’ And it works out really well. So our priorities, Mike and Tina’s priorities, the DuBois Area School District’s priorities, kind of all blend together.”

The Sabadoses have actually been funding field trips to the center for DASD’s fourth-graders for the past four years. If current times, specifically COVID, permits, the fourth-graders are scheduled to visit the center this month.

“Sometimes I think we take for granted what’s right in our own backyard,” said Michael Sabados. “I believe it’s important to let people know that it’s there because some people just stay right here and don’t actually get out and do things that are close to home. I hope this will help get the word out.”

“I believe it’s supplementing our school district’s curriculum,” said Tina Sabados. “Education is so important. As a citizen of our country and DuBois, I feel it’s the least we can do to give to these children that have a life ahead of them the exposure to learning about conservation, habitat enhancement and preserving the land in Pa. Prior to their field trips, the teachers are already providing the students with some information, so when they go up to the Keystone Elk Country Visitor Center, they’re not, per se blinded by all the information ... so partnering in to fund these trips is just to enhance what our school district is already doing for our students.”

Taking that concept one step further, Cogan said, “We want to be an extension of the classroom. So if they’re teaching a biology class, we can tailor our programs to be an extension of that. If we’re talking about population estimates, we have courses that are set up under the guidelines of the state mandate for the curriculum that marry up. So the teachers can then bring their class there to the visitor center, we become an extension of their classroom. And that’s kind of what our ultimate goal is. We want to be a tool for the teachers. I mean, if we built this and no one showed up, we would be pretty disappointed. And so we want to be able to have the teachers use our facility as part of their curriculum. So we’re in lock-step with the curriculum mandate the state puts out and we have professional educators that have been in the classroom 20 some years. So we’re trying to be more or less an extension that the teachers can use.”

After learning about the “generous support” from the Sabados’ and KECA, DASD Superintendent Wendy Benton said, “The advocacy and support for education from the DuBois community is unmatched and DASD is beyond grateful and excited to provide our students with the opportunity to visit the Keystone Elk Country Alliance Visitor Center & Educational Facility.”

“We share in the mission of the KECA and believe in the importance of teaching our youth about conservation education and the value of natural resources,” said Benton. “The educational opportunities provided at the Keystone Elk Country Educational Center by PA certified educators are in direct alignment with our curriculum and are the ideal extension of the learning that occurs in our classrooms. The Keystone Elk Country Alliance is committed to giving back to the children in our community and we are committed to teaching our students to pay it forward.”

Benton said this September, all fourth grade students will be provided with the opportunity, with parental permission, to visit the Keystone Elk Country Educational Center. All seventh-graders will have the opportunity to engage in the KECA’s Distance Learning experience during this school year.

In addition, Benton said the district is actively planning for the fall of 2022 to extend the opportunity to both the fourth-graders and ninth-graders, which includes the life skills students as well.

“Our goal is to provide an introductory experience in fourth grade through the first field trip and a more in-depth experience when the students return as ninth-graders,” said Benton. “Effective in the fall of 2022 and through the financial support of KECA, the educational trips will benefit approximately 800 DASD students annually.”

In addition to the field trips, Benton said the future goal is to continue to nurture interest in conservation education and the value of natural resources through the establishment of club opportunities and career exploration.

“I believe it’s heaven here on earth,” said Tina Sabados about elk country. “Not only the environment, but the people, the organization itself, their mission, what they’re seeking to do. It’s just a collective source of just all positive, and I’m one, I go on positive energy. Rawley, he dreamt of this, per se, with a couple other people, he put it into play and to go up there, you feel it from everybody that’s associated with the organization, whether they’re on the board or they’re an employee or the volunteers.”

Cogan said there are 16 KECA chapters across the state that are raising money for them to do what they do.

“It works out pretty well,” said Cogan. “So for us to give back, that’s what we’re about, especially in communities that support us. It’s a great partnership all the way around.”

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