PEORIA — It was hard to miss the 150-foot barge that was docked along the Illinois River in front of the RiverPlex Recreation and Wellness Center last week.
Many of the people that saw the barge in front of the RiverPlex, 600 NE Water St., Peoria, last week probably thought it was there to load or unload cargo.
However, the barge that serves as a floating classroom was docked in Peoria to educate teachers, students and other members of the greater Peoria community about the importance of river ecosystems.
Throughout the past few months, the barge that is operated by Living Lands & Waters, an environmental organization based in East Moline, has docked in several communities located along Midwest rivers, including the Ohio River, Mississippi River, Des Plaines River and Illinois River, to provide free educator and student workshops.
“We started on the Ohio River,” said Living Lands and Waters Education Coordinator Jaymie Schuldt. “We had a few workshops there. And then we went to the Mississippi and held a series of educator workshops and two weeks of student workshops in the Quad Cities and two weeks in St. Louis. We started on the Des Plaines River in Channahon doing educator workshops on October 12 and then we started student workshops October 15. So we started on the Des Plaines and we’re working our way down the Illinois River and we’ll end in Grafton on November 29.”
On Oct. 29 and Oct 31, around 90 students from Peoria Christian High School attended student workshops on the barge.
“We had 45 students each day, so they had a total of 90 students that came,” said Schuldt. “The student workshops go from 9 AM – 2 PM. It’s a complete day on the river.”
Around 22 members of the OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at Bradley University visited the barge on Oct. 30. OLLI is an organization of nearly 900 Peoria-area residents, from ages 50 to 98, who want to stay vital and active as they reach and enjoy retirement.
“Twenty-two senior citizens came and did a short workshop,” said Schuldt.
About 11 students from Lowpoint-Washburn School District 21 visited the barge for a student workshop on Nov. 1. On Nov. 2, around 35 students from East Peoria High School participated in a student workshop on the barge.
Living Lands and Waters has provided educator workshops since 2003. This is the first year the organization has provided student workshops.
“With the educator workshops that we had, all the teachers said two things: this is the best workshop we’ve ever been to and how can we get our students involved?” said Schuldt. “Up until last year, our old barge wasn’t ADA accessible. It just wasn’t safe to have students on, so we built this barge last summer with the help of union laborers from St. Paul to St. Louis.
“After the completion of that we were able to have students on because it is ADA accessible. It is safe and the classroom size is much larger. We’ve held up to 60 students at a time.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped design the curriculum for the educator and student workshops that Living Lands and Waters provides.
“We worked with the U.S. Corp of Engineers with their new ‘Our Mississippi’ curriculum,” said Schuldt. “We have used some of their activities that were in that curriculum with our students with our student workshops, but we also do a lot of things on our own too with bringing in guest speakers, talking about careers of the river, the importance of the river, recycling.”
Chad Pregracke started Living Lands & Waters in 1998 as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the beautification and restoration of America’s major rivers and to the education of people about environmental issues. Beginning with a single boat, Living Lands & Waters has grown to an internationally known organization with a fleet of barges and workboats. Living Lands & Waters engages thousands of volunteers each year in river cleanups and hands-on environmental education workshops.