As a child, Erik Callender would secretly buy snakes and turtles from the pet store and sneak them into his bedroom. His mother would find out when she found crickets hopping around their home.
As an adult, his love for reptiles only grew stronger, and the 36-year-old travels regularly to places like the Philippines, Nicaragua and Malaysia to observe wildlife.
In 2006, he founded Erik’s Reptile Edventures in which he teaches children about reptiles in schools and at local events. Last year, he did 451 educational visits, but he wanted to expand his reach further.
After the Hauppauge man witnessed rampant poverty and illiteracy during his first trip to Madagascar in 2011, he focused his efforts on building a nature center there.
“Many children don’t have educational opportunities and stay in a circle of poverty because they’re not given the opportunity to learn,” Callender said. “My vision is to have a place for the children to go to build life skills and learn.”
Callender formed the nonprofit, Wildlife Kids Club International, after that trip to Madagascar to raise the funds necessary to build the nature center. Local schools that partner with the nonprofit sell T-shirts and wristbands to help fund the project.
In turn, Callender, while visiting Madagascar, does video conference calls via Skype with children in those schools. In March, he and the children Skyped with Longwood Middle School students in Middle Island.
Debi Edwards, a social worker at Longwood Middle School, said with his eccentric, uplifting demeanor, Callender delivered a valuable experience to students.
“It’s an incredible experience for our kids to share a classroom experience with kids in Madagascar,” Edwards, of Setauket, said. “They’re completely engaged. If you saw the energy between them it doesn’t seem like they’re across the world from each other.”
Callender’s goal is to raise $100,000, which he estimates is enough money to build and staff the nature center in Ranomafana, Madagascar, for up to four years. After that, Callender hopes the center will be self-sustaining through merchandise sales and tours.
Callender said the center, which he hopes to staff with three teachers, will provide children with weekly classes on reading and science, and an opportunity to learn English and develop friendships with children in the United States through a pen pal program and Skype chats.
To start raising funds, Wildlife Kids Club International will host F.U.N. Madagascar Fundraiser at Brookside Firehouse in Uniondale on Saturday, in which he’ll host three two-hour shows. Tickets cost $5 for adults and $3 for children.
Maria Gerhart, of Lido Beach, met Callender seven years ago when she started hiring him for private parties for her 9-year-old son Ryan and attending events where he lectured.
Gerhart said her son is allergic to animals with fur, so he’s developed a love of reptiles that Callender has helped foster. They plan to attend the fundraiser to support Callender.
“You could see that he truly loves what he does,” she said. “And these kids over in Madagascar deserve what our kids get -- a fun, educational experience.”
Callender is also collecting donations through an online fundraiser, which will end on Jan. 24.