Set inside an 88-acre wetlands preserve in Stony Brook, two portable classrooms have provided thousands of students a unique place to study fiddler crabs, blue mussels, jingle shells, egrets and other marine life in their natural habitat. For more than 60 years, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Ernst Marine Conservation Center has been sparking kids’ and teens’ interest in science -- even inspiring some to pursue careers in marine biology.
But the future of this waterside learning environment is endangered.
Although the conservation center, which was created by the late Dr. Erwing Ernst, was built atop 5-foot concrete pillars, the classrooms took on about a foot of water from West Meadow Creek during superstorm Sandy.
“We had to rip out the carpeting, flooring, sheetrock and insulation,” said Gloria Rocchio, president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, which needs to raise $80,000 to restore the two 30-feet by 40-feet classrooms.
For now, the group is focusing on Phase 1, which calls for collecting the $10,000 needed to make some basic repairs so the school can open in late spring. That includes electrical work, painting and replacing the flooring, carpeting and trim. The heating and air conditioning also needs to be replaced, but Rocchio says these items are lower on the priority list.
Dentist Rocco Morelli, of WatersEdge Dental in Stony Brook, has donated the laminate flooring for the center’s bathroom, and through a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.com, the WMHO had received more than $2,875 as of Thursday afternoon.
Rocchio will also be picking up a check for $1,500 next Tuesday from R.C. Murphy Junior High School in Stony Brook. Eighth and ninth graders in Brian Pickford’s Student Leadership program raised the money last month by selling nearly 1,200 silk roses to their schoolmates and hosting a Valentine’s Day party. Some of the students volunteer with the heritage organization's Youth Corps, planting spartina to prevent erosion and removing invasive species like pepperweed from the area.
“It was a perfect fit,” said Pickford about his group’s decision to donate the money they raised to the heritage organization. “It goes right to the local community, to learning -- which is their primary purpose as students -- and it was a gift that would keep on giving.”
The total amount raised so far is more than $4,375, but it’s actually much closer to the $10,000 goal since Gyrodyne Company of America, a commercial property development firm based in St. James, has agreed to match, dollar-for-dollar, all contributions up to $5,000 received by March 31. The company’s chief operating officer, Peter Pitsiokos, is a former student of Dr. Ernst, and convinced Gyrodyne’s management to agree to the match after educating them about the conservation center’s impact.
“The marine biology station at West Meadow Beach has served generations of students learning about the ecosystems that make the Three Village area so special,” said Pitsiokos in an email. “Gyrodyne felt that offering a matching grant to help restore the Ward Melville Heritage Organization's facility and preserve the legacy of Dr. Ernst was a fitting contribution to make in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's devastating damage."
Through the Ernst Marine Conservation Center’s internationally-recognized distance learning program, students from across the country have been able to virtually explore the wetlands in Stony Brook using a live video feed. However, the real value of the center can be seen when a student walks along the shore of the creek, picks up a fiddler crab and examines it under a microscope before releasing it back into the wild.
“It gives them a real sense of an environment to be immersed in it,” Rocchio added. “You can't replace that, not with textbooks and not with slides.”