“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.