Daytonians of the Week: The women of Learning Tree Farm Dayton helping kids connect with nature

There aren't too many memories as nostalgic and sweet as those first childhood field trips full of sights and sounds never experienced before. Loralynn Kadell and Kaitlin Salley's passion is to make sure the children of Miami Valley will also be able to create those memories.

Since 1973, Learning Tree Farm has been a gateway to nature and education for thousands of children around the area. The farm's original environmental education model, still used today, connects children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds with nature to inspire environmental exploration, understanding and stewardship.

Salley, Learning Tree’s marketing director, and Kadell, Learning Tree’s farm operations director, work around the clock to ensure Learning Tree continues to thrive and reach as many children as possible, even with just a staff primarily of dedicated volunteers.

"Some of the grandchildren of the farm's earliest supporters are now students at our Nature Preschool and participants on school field trips!  Even while expanding and meeting the growing demand for nature-based education in our community, Learning Tree Farm remains a special place for people to connect with nature in a way that is meaningful and lasting," according to the Learning Tree Farm website.

A Daytonian herself and graduate of the University of Dayton, Salley first heard about Learning Tree Farm after her niece visited with her kindergarten class three years ago. “She had an amazing time, and it was an experience she talked about for months after,” Salley said. When the role of marketing director opened, Salley knew it was something she wanted to be a part of.

Kadell, a Wittenberg University graduate and former legislative aide for the Ohio House of Representatives, moved to Dayton with her family in 2001. Although she felt the job was a perfect match for many reasons, she said her Border Collies might have helped secure the position.

“I started as a Field Trip Educator in 2008, and as is typical with small non-profits, I then quickly was also assigned as the Animal Care Manager. The job was a perfect fit for me at the time since my youngest was going into first grade and the hours allowed me to be home when she got off the bus. I've also always had a passion for working with animals and the job allowed me to bring my border collies to work with me! They are trained sheepdogs, and we often do herding demonstrations for visitors. They also help me manage the livestock when I need to administer medications or move them to different areas of the farm. I always tell people I got the job because the farm really wanted the dogs!” Kadell said.

Both women are our Daytonians of the Week. 

🌳Why are you passionate about helping connect our area's kids with the natural environment?
Salley: "Children spend more and more time inside and in front of screens and when they are outside, there are often pretty strict rules they need to follow. I love that, at Learning Tree Farm, kids are free to be kids. They can run and play, they can pet and hold our animals, they can taste fresh fruits and vegetables from our garden, and they really are free to just explore. That connection to nature and agriculture and animals is a really special relationship to foster."

Kadell: "We see students (and parents and teachers) who, when they first arrive at the farm, are anxious and apprehensive about the being out in open spaces with dirt, woods, and tall grass and aren't sure about entering livestock barns or walking in a pasture with ponies and sheep. Many have never been around farm animals at all. It's really rewarding to see how quickly they become acclimated and truly enjoy being out in nature and interacting with our calm animal ambassadors. Our mission is "Hands on Learning in a Traditional Farm Setting" and we believe this hands-on approach really connects people with the environment and gives them a better appreciation for agriculture and farming."

🌳What have been a couple of your most rewarding moments with Learning Tree?
Salley: "Learning Tree Farm was founded in 1973 by two amazing women. They recognized, then, how important it was to connect children to nature. They also recognized that children were spending less time outside. To this day, Learning Tree Farm still has an all-female leadership team and most of our employees are women! I constantly find it rewarding to be part of that all-female leadership team!
One of the most rewarding experiences at the farm is seeing the transformation of a child during just one visit. I can remember during one field trip, seeing a child who clearly wanted to hold a chicken and was afraid. With the help of one our amazing educators and encouragement from his classmates, he was able to not only pick up and hold a chicken, but then helped other classmates learn how to hold them as well. It was really special to see that confidence grow and then translate into helping others."

Kadell: "Hearing students tell their teachers this was "the best field trip ever!" and then seeing students bring their families back to the farm because they want to share that experience is really amazing and energizes us to continue to provide this "Farm away from Home" for the community."

🌳What surprises you most on a daily basis at your job?

Salley: "I am always so inspired by the passion I see from the Learning Tree Farm community. From our amazing educators, our leadership team, our farm hands and our board members and everyone in between. It seems like visiting once usually isn't enough and we have had parents who were field trip chaperones become educators and parents of our preschool students become board members. And on top of that, it's not unusual for our staff members to come visit the farm outside of work because they simply enjoy being there."

🌳What is one thing you wish you knew when you were the age of some of these children coming to the farm for a visit?
Salley: "Truthfully, I wish I had known that Learning Tree was there! I love visiting as an adult, but I wish I would have been able to experience it as a child, as well. We offer a much different experience than you get at a zoo or another farm."

Kadell: "I grew up in the country and have always had a passion for animals and being outdoors, so for me, being able to share that love of nature and the natural world is really special, and I feel like this is a perfect job for me!"

🌳What is one thing people might not know about Learning Tree Farm?

Salley: "Learning Tree Farm is such a special place and people of all ages can enjoy it, even adults! One thing I don't think people always realize is how hands-on you can get with our animals. We encourage people to enter their pens and join them in the fields."

Kadell: "I think the relaxed atmosphere at the farm and the fact that we allow visitors to go into the barns and pastures to interact with the livestock, as well as taste vegetables growing in our garden, really surprises first time visitors. We often hear parents telling their children "Don't Touch!" and we immediately tell them "Please, DO Touch!"

🌳What is your favorite part about living in the Dayton-area?
Salley: "I love living in Dayton. For a small city, we have so much to do! I love finding and supporting local businesses, restaurants, and artists. On top of that, I love the feeling of community in Dayton."

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