The Pioneer of Texas Outdoor Education

You can’t properly tell the story of outdoor education in the Canyon—or in the state of Texas—without talking about Irma Lewis, a P.E. teacher from Seguin.

“Really, to tell it right,” said Erik Silvius, Senior Director of the H. E. Butt Foundation’s newly rechristened Outdoor School, “you’d need to begin in the early 1970s. Irma was a pioneer of outdoor education in the state. Go around to any major university in the state, and you’ll find that the origins of their adventure recreation programs in some way can be traced back to Irma—through relationships or curriculum or direct mentoring.”

That’s true of the Outdoor School’s work too. Every time Texas students enjoy the Frio River Canyon, they’re experiencing a bit of the Irma effect.

Back when most Texas athletics programs were first focused on creating championship football teams, Irma designed her first outdoor education curriculum at Seguin High School. As Irma’s own outdoor education program grew, she mentored Lisa and Rick Robbins, also local P.E. teachers.

In 1988, Lisa launched an Adventure Club that took local kids mountain biking, kayak-ing, and rock climbing at the end of their school day, on weekends, and during summer months. Irma and Rick took that club model back to their respective campuses. Meager budgets led to creative adaptations and innovations, all on behalf of students.

“There’s this apocryphal story floating around,” says Erik with a smile, “that in the early days, Irma snuck her high school class onto a nearby highway overpass to rappel off. Turns out there’s not a lot of steep topography near Seguin, so she made do with what she had to let her kids experience rappelling.”

Irma’s and Rick’s creativity and tenacity eventually convinced the Seguin Independent School District to add a year-round outdoor education class as part of its on- campus physical education program. As Irma’s work became more known throughout the state, she networked with other Texas educators, traveling to Echo Valley to participate and teach at the Texas Outdoor Education Association’s annual summits, held in the Canyon since that group’s inception in 1979.

TOEA Vice President of Membership Sally McAfee recalls taking cooking classes taught by Irma that were set up in front of Echo Valley Cabins I and J: “I took the class every chance I had because it was so much fun. She was the first one to teach me to make ice cream by rolling cans back and forth. She cooked eggs in paper bags, cooked things on sticks, in buddy burners, box ovens—but she did it with lots of laughter and excitement. She never cared how exact or perfect it was—it was campfire cooking and she would try about anything.”

By 1995, twenty-three acres on Seguin’s Geronimo Creek had been donated by local benefactor Carla Blumberg as a permanent home for Irma’s and Rick’s work. Together, they established the Seguin Outdoor Learning Center (SOLC) to provide children and families with nearby adventure recreation and outdoor education.

Soon after, Erik and his brother Pete Silvius met Rick and worked at the SOLC while they were both undergraduate students at Texas Lutheran University.

“Seguin ISD let us use the oldest school bus in town,” Erik said, “and we drove kids back and forth, all day long, from the schools to the center. Kids would alternate their days between traditional P.E. classes and outdoor education.”

Rick mentored the Silvius brothers just as Irma had mentored Rick. The brothers both ended up with careers in outdoor educators, working in Seguin.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH…

About the same time—a couple hours’ drive westward—Foundation employee John Worden had been working with colleagues to create a full-time outdoor education position in the Frio River Canyon, one that could serve all of the Foundation’s programs’ needs.

“I suppose in some sense outdoor education was the initial and central vision for the camp,” John said. “The 1954 acquisition of the property fulfilled a vision Howard Butt, Sr. had to provide an experience in nature for children.

For decades, groups that came to the Foundation Camps had been on their own to create intentional educational experiences that went beyond mere recreation. But in the early 2000s, the Foundation decided that in addition to hosting groups it would also develop site-specific outdoor education curricular materials and facilitate intentional educational experiences in the outdoors.

The Foundation hoped to recruit one of the Silvius brothers, whose work with SOLC and TOEA was known to John. Before long, Erik, his wife Liz, and their two sons were headed to live in the Frio River Canyon.

Before they arrived in 2011, there was no full-time outdoor staff. The first-generation, hand-brake zip line was still in use on Echo Bluff, but the original 1990s-era ropes course had already been phased out. The catwalk, pamper pole, two-line bridge, and linear ropes course would, in time, give way to the present day state-of-the-art zip lines, climbing towers, and advanced rappels.

As Erik created the Foundation’s fledgling outdoor program, he was guided by Irma’s and Rick’s mentorship and inspired by the programming he had found at SOLC. He brought in classroom sets of kayaks and mountain bikes, invested in a water study curriculum, and following his first summer in the Canyon, brought on Nich Hearn to assist in the endeavor.

The Silvius brothers still work together closely to design meaningful outdoor experiences for elementary, junior high, and high school students, extending the legacy of a visionary 1970s P.E. teacher while simultaneously living into the mission of the Foundation. Seguin ISD currently sends seven different groups of students to visit the Canyon each school year.

Irma’s legacy can also be seen in the Seguin-based volunteers who help pull off this effort. Erik’s brother Pete and longtime volunteers like Seguin’s Jim and Lenore Hilbert come out multiple times a year with school buses full of eager kids. By Erik’s count, the Hilberts—now in their 80s—have been out to the Canyon to volunteer about 56 times over the past eight years.

“They’ve shown us and these kids what’s possible in terms of a couple giving back their time in order to transform their community,” Erik said. “It’s more than just the kids seeing that they take time to show up; the Hilberts are deeply, deeply engaged in every minute they are there, treating these students with love. The kids see a couple who are loving to each other, loving to the kids—even a ten-year-old is going to be motivated by seeing and having that in their life.”

Irma Lewis died in 2013. Her legacy will live on: both at the SOLC—now renamed the Irma Lewis Seguin Outdoor Learning Center—and in the faces of curious Seguin ISD students stepping off yellow school buses and into the classroom of the Canyon, an expansive and embodied laboratory, one without walls or ceilings.

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