It was a first for River House PA- a mostly “indoor” event, even though it had a nature theme- owls! We were frustrated because we could not help our Vets throughout the cold winter months. Hanging out at a campfire, however cozy, was just too cold in December-February. But dear River House friend, Susan Mc McCartney, came up with a solution. Her local St John’s UCC Church in Orwigsburg! They have a great indoor space for meals with an extensive kitchen and also a carpeted sanctuary open space. Susan got permission and we were in.
Since I home schooled our children for many years and facilitated their learning, I knew of some nature-based activities that we particularly enjoyed- tearing apart owl pellets, for one. Owls are birds of prey. After an owl eats the small rodents, birds, and bugs that are a part of its nightly diet, its stomach cannot digest the fur, bones, teeth, feathers, and insect shells from that food. These “extra” parts are formed into a tight pellet inside the owl and are then are later spit up by the owl, like a cat hair ball.
I got the idea to dissect owl pellets when I was walking past some huge white pines near our home and saw bird droppings down below and thought the Vets might find it as interesting as did my kids. I was a little concerned they might think it a lame activity but was willing to take the chance. Next step was securing a naturalist/educator from nearby Hawk Mountain Sanctuary to assist us in our learning. Katie Andrews stepped up to the plate and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary granted her permission to use their props as teaching aids. I purchased sterilized owl pellets from the internet which came wrapped in aluminum foil. I copied bone identification charts and gathered paper plates and tooth picks for each Vet.
The vans came loaded with Vets from the Lebanon VA Hospital, and they piled into the warm brightness of the St John’s community center. Katie arrived with taxidermy owls, wings, bags of feathers, and talons. The Vets had a snack and settled in for a lecture, which they found to their surprise, was captivating. Katie shared her knowledge of owls with the Vets and they sat transfixed. Hands shot up every 30 seconds with yet another question. That is the sign of true connection, when you are getting your audience to wonder.
After Katie explained what it was like to be an owl, they got to work on their owl pellets. They gently picked off the tiny matted hairs to reveal femurs and skulls. They were astounded to find tiny teeth inside the skulls, and discover which animal this owl feasted on. While they uncovered their treasures, I read aloud to them from the award-winning book, “Owl Moon,” by Jane Yolen. It is the story of a young child and her father as they search the moonlit woods for the Great Horned Owl. I figured it has probably been a long time since anyone had read aloud to them, and maybe never for some. I am always striving to find new experiences to expose my Vets too. They seemed to enjoy the story and it gave them an idea of what to expect from part two of the evening- going into the night woods and attempt to call the owls in.
We did something different this time. Todd got the idea to send out requests for donors where they could sponsor an event. If they lived nearby, they could attend and meet the Vets and see first hand, their impact on their lives. Dianne Seaman of Hamburg, PA sponsored this partiuclar event and joined us for the evening. She too dissected a pellet, enjoyed dinner and went on the owl walk. It was very healing for the Vets to be able to thank her in person for this day and good for Dianne to actually see who she was helping and how.
The Vets did not want to quit dissecting, even when their dinner was laid out on the serving table. Almost all of them cleaned up their bones nicely and requested a piece of aluminum foil to take their bones back to the VA hospital for them for safe keeping and a memory.
Susan helped us prepare a great meal of meatball sandwiches, potato salad, fruit and veggies and cake. After nearly every one of them wrapped up an extra meatball sandwich to go, we piled into the vans and caravan-ed up to Hawk Mountain.
The temperature had dropped and the wind was brisk on the mountain top. We first stood on the deck of the Education Center and Katie used a Boz and a special AP on her phone to sound off the various owl calls and project them up the mountain. We all stood very quietly and listened hard for a reply. After no success, we crossed the street and followed the Golden Eagle Trail into the woods. We turned off all our flashlights and Katie called again and again. The wind wracked the tree tops and we were filled with its force and beautiful sound. We never heard an owl call back. A few “thought” they did far in the distance but the wind made it hard, although the powerful wind made the experience invigorating.
The Vets piled into their vans for the drive back to the hospital and no one felt disappointed. Next month is Yoga for Vets and Transcendental Meditation workshop, once again indoors but almost as important as nature healing. Everyone said they were signing up and coming back. And they wanted hugs good bye, filled with gratitude, that is the proof of our success.
From Veteran Will Wendling, he wrote “The class on the habits and lifestyles of the owls commonly found in our region was very informative and interesting. I myself have been interested in learning everything I can about all of the creatures found in nature my entire life. Going into the class I had the mentality that I’m about to hear things I already knew. To my surprise, the women giving the class explained things that I have never learned before! For example, owls migrating is something I never heard of, I just assumed they always lived in the relative area to which they were raised. She was very knowledgeable and able to keep my attention during the entire time she spoke. Owl calling is also something that was new to me. Although the weather made it hard to successfully hear an owl respond to us the night we tried, it’s definitely something I see myself attempting in the future while camping. I’m very appreciative to the preserve for taking the time to teach us more about these amazing birds and giving me even more knowledge about the wildlife I love so dearly.”
And from Dianne Seaman, the evening’s donor.. In this day and age of impersonal, distant and large non-profits for yes, good causes, I am never sure just how my money will be used if I donate. However I feel good about making a local contribution to River House, which provides services for veterans. I know the caliber and integrity of Cindy Ross, who is in charge so I trusted the money would be used well, I not only knew exactly where the money was going, but saw it with my own eyes by attending the event I sponsored. I therefore also got to enjoy and benefit from the creative evening learning about owls and a shared dinner, building community. Meeting the veterans in person put faces to the issues I have so often heard about veterans facing. I could see how they benefited from the program, which was very satisfying.
If you would like to sponsor an event with River House PA and our Veterans, there are nearly 20 events scheduled throughout 2017 to pick from. If you can get to us here in eastern PA, you are certainty welcome to join in. For a list of activities and dates, contact me. A typical event costs about $200 to feed about 24, and often has some left over for props like the owl pellets. Co-sponsoring is certainly possible too if you want to just contribute half or even a quarter. firstname.lastname@example.org
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