The Schoharie River Center has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades.
Its sprawling campus offers everything from environmental education programs to blacksmithing to archeology sessions to filmmaking classes.
It all began with the former Methodist Church on Burtonville Road in Esperance. The church, which dates to 1857, was up for sale, and in 1999 a small group of community members banded together to create a nonprofit organization and take over ownership of the building in hopes of maintaining it for the community’s use.
John McKeeby, executive director of the River Center, was one of the founding members. At the time, he was working with youth in the Schenectady County Department of Social Services, creating programs to prevent young teens from going into the foster care system or to juvenile detention centers.
After work one day, McKeeby was walking along the Schoharie Creek, and came across a group of young people swimming and jumping off nearby ledges.
“This one young man jumped off the ledge, swam across the creek and got out where I was, and we started talking. I said ‘Have we met? And he said, ‘Yeah, you just talked to me a couple of hours ago at the Family Court,’ ” McKeeby said.
At first McKeeby was shocked. “Because he didn’t seem like the same kid at all. He was a sullen, angry kid at the court, wasn’t saying much, and in talking with him on the Schoharie [Creek] … there were strengths there that I hadn’t seen.
So that’s where we kinda got the idea that this might be a way of being able to engage youth; not through catching them doing something wrong, but catching them doing something right,” McKeeby said.
In the ensuing years, the Schoharie River Center has certainly expanded upon that idea. The organization purchased 20 acres and a building, which serves as a laboratory and classroom, right down the road from the former church.
There, students in grades six through 12 gather throughout the year to learn how to test water quality, using the same tools and systems professionals might. They also study the macroinvertebrates in the river that can help paint a fuller picture of the water quality.
“Not only are they being trained to do scientifically valid research, we’re looking at bodies of water and streams and things that often are not being monitored,” McKeeby said.
While many of the state’s rivers, streams and lakes are monitored by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, there are approximately 22,000 bodies of water in the state and not enough DEC employees to monitor each one regularly, said McKeeby.
“There’s a real need to have volunteer folks who are trained to be able to monitor their own local water, and if they find something or they see something that’s amiss that they then have the data to then go to DEC,” McKeeby said.
Students enrolled in Schoharie River Center programs have done just that. “Over the years, the program and the students have identified several different areas of concern where they’ve been able to document … and pass that on to DEC, and DEC has then gone back and done their own research and validated it, and in some cases they’ve launched legal action,” McKeeby said.
Students study not only the Schoharie Creek but rivers, lakes and streams where they live. River Center programs have helped students assess the Mohawk River, Dove Creek in Amsterdam and Mayfield Lake, among others.
Students in the Environmental Study Team (EST) program also conduct research projects, presenting them at the Mohawk Watershed Symposium at Union College.
“Students that we work with in the EST program, the goal is to get them really interested in learning. We’re not necessarily interested in having them become watershed biologists and watershed professionals, but we are interested in having them staying in school and beginning to think about potential job or career opportunities that maybe they’ve never had any kind of contact with and wouldn’t have known about,” McKeeby said.
It’s also a unique opportunity for students who normally wouldn’t have a chance to be out in nature, let alone study it.
“A lot of the kids that we work with, they don’t get outside a whole lot,” McKeeby said. “The kind of connection that we create ourselves with nature influences our behavior. So if you feel that nature is a scary, dangerous place, then you’re going to avoid it and you’re not going to care so much about it if something [bad] happens [to it]; where if you have the opportunity to be in it and enjoy and understand the connections that you have with it, that your life depends on this planet being healthy in all kinds of ways … you begin to care, and maybe it’ll change your behavior.”
Beyond the Environmental Study Team, the River Center also brings students on campus to learn how to make maple syrup. In a timber-frame sugar shack built in 2016 on the River Center campus, students learn the time-consuming art of making the sweet syrup after having trudged through the forested area to find the tapped trees.
“The model we use is experience-based,” McKeeby said. “It’s a strategy that everybody seems to like. There’s no homework, there’s no test, but the proof is in the pudding.”
Next to the sugar shack is the latest addition to the campus, a blacksmith workshop. Housed in a timber-frame building are anvils, forges, hammers and the handwrought creations of students. A few times a month, professional blacksmiths such as Noah Khoury of Altamont give workshops at the River Center, teaching students the basics of the craft.
Khoury is a second-generation blacksmith whose father first taught him the craft at the age of 7. After high school, Khoury went on to study at the Appalachian Center for Craft in Tennessee, getting his bachelor’s degree in metals. He’s been teaching blacksmithing since he was in high school, first at the Helderberg Workshop in Voorheesville and since last year at the River Center.
During the workshops, he helps students mold molten metal into a candlestick holder, bottle opener or cooking utensil.
It’s satisfying to pass down the increasingly unique skill.
“I definitely like it when you have younger kids who really appreciate it, especially when you get teenagers. It’s the perfect time for them to be digging into something like that because they’re ready, willing and able to just soak it all in.
Some people just have a good one-off experience and that’s great, but it’s really cool when you see somebody who comes back again and again or starts doing it at home and really takes something away from it,” Khoury said.
Renovations in the works
Beyond the addition of a blacksmith workshop, the River Center is looking to expand its roots. It plans to renovate the former church in which the organization got its start.
“We’re finally in the process now of renovating it. We want to have heat and we want to have plumbing,” McKeeby said.
They started to build an addition on the building in 2019, but progress was stopped completely in 2020 due to the pandemic. As progress picks back up, the addition will have a green room, handicap-accessible bathroom, large closet space and a heating system, which will heat the entire building and allow the center to host events there all year long.
“It’s [nearly] 200 years in coming, but it is going forward,” McKeeby said.
For information on the project or any of Schoharie River Center’s programs, visit schoharierivercenter.org.
Schoharie River Center
Year Founded: 1999
Area Served: Greater Capital Region
Mission: To instill a love for learning, arts and science, promote the values of stewardship for our local environment, and encourage the positive and responsible involvement of all individuals in their communities.
Quote: “It’s really trying to immerse folks in the environment in a way that helps to form a connection for them,” — John McKeeby, executive director