By KAKI HOLT
Special to the Daily News
The Garden Club of Palm Beach has maintained its commitment to the Pine Jog Environmental Education Center for decades.
Well, to be precise, the center traces its roots to one of the club’s members — Elizabeth Kay and her husband, Alfred — who had originally purchased the Pine Jog Plantation in 1946. Back then, the couple grew fruits and vegetables on the site.
To test her belief that exposing at-risk youths to nature could reduce juvenile vandalism, Kay decided to educate young students about the outdoors on the 150-acre property.
When she created nature classes in conjunction with the Florida Audubon Society, they were an immediate success with teachers and students. The garden club “adopted” the nature center in the early 1970s as part of its environmental efforts.
“We have always been very enthusiastic and supportive of Pine Jog,” says club member Ann Blades. “It’s one of the tenants of the Garden Clubs of America that you have environmental goals.”
In 1996, garden club member Ann Kunkel bequeathed more than $5 million to the center at the corner of Summit Boulevard and Jog Road, west of West Palm Beach. Combined with the money left by Elizabeth Kay and state matching funds, the endowment swelled to $13 million.
As one of the oldest nature centers in the nation, Pine Jog presently serves 25,000 students, 750 teachers and 12,500 adults from our area each year. Today part of Florida Atlantic University, the site offers more than 3 miles of walking trails with an informational kiosk and trail map.
In 2008, Pine Jog partnered with the Palm Beach County School District to build a “green” elementary school that would meet the tough standards of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design specifications, usually referred to as LEED. Some 15 acres were set aside for the school.
“Pine Jog Elementary is one of the premier green schools in the country,” says Katie Pressly, who serves on the Pine Jog board and is a garden club member. “They’re on the cutting edge of environmental school buildings and grounds.”
In 2009, Blades and club member Carrie Murray tackled a rundown part of the property with the goal of restoring the native prairie. Removing non-native plants they found in the area was a priority. They ended up winning a GCA Founders Fund prize for their efforts, the latest award of many over the years.
“That area was badly degraded by children walking back and forth across it, plus it was filled with exotics,” Blades says. “Together with FAU, local schools and Pine Jog’s after-school kids, we put in over 4,000 native plants.”