By Sue Tiffin
Irene Heaven remembers one year, in her role as co-ordinator of the Haliburton-Muskoka-Kawartha Children’s Water Festival, that a little girl presented her with two pieces of artwork. In one, a painting of a healthy lake, and in the other, a painting of an unhealthy lake.
“She gave that to me, and it’s like, OK, she got it, she’s excited about it,” said Heaven. “I think that just really solidified everything we’re doing.”
After twelve years of co-ordinating the annual two-day event, which brings students in Grades 4 to 6 from across the Trillium Lakelands District School Board together at hands-on learning stations to celebrate water and climate change education, Heaven is preparing to pass the torch. She took the co-ordinator role on in 2009, four years after the Water Festival was launched, and it’s one she has loved.
“My background is a wildlife biologist-turned-educator, so I always had a real love of nature and trying to get kids hooked on nature, so I had that passion,” she said, noting she has often worn a fish hat at the event and is sometimes referred to as “Mrs. Fish Head” by the kids.
She said she’s learned to fundraise to bring the event to fruition, and has formed a kinship of sorts with the outside presenters that come to offer activities.
“The committee is really an amazing group of people who are dedicated to providing children with a positive learning environment and experience,” she said.
“I guess really, the absolute best thing of it all, is the days of the festival, when all of those hundreds and hundreds of kids start rolling off the buses. It’s absolute chaos and they’re running and laughing and outside and learning about water and climate change, and they probably don’t even know it. They’re just having a blast. That’s my absolute favourite part. It’s so rewarding, because you work all year, sometimes there’s hurdles but all the people you work with to get it off the ground, then the kids come and they have a blast and you see their smiling faces leaving at the end of the day. It’s incredible.”
Heaven said when hurdles get in the way – as with previous challenges the water festival has come up against, including teacher job action and the pandemic, it’s important to find a way to still offer the event in some form.
“That’s part of the job, you have to be flexible, you have to be ready to kind of go with the flow,” said Heaven, laughing at the pun. “The most important thing is the experiential learning. The kids, you want them to literally get their hands wet, and learn by doing. If they can do it while they’re outside, and making those ecological connections while they’re doing it, that’s I think what drives myself and also the incredible committee I’ve been able to work with.”
This year the Children’s Water Festival will happen via virtual modules for teachers to implement, until an in-person event can happen.
“It’s just keeping with the spirit of the festival until we’re once again able to get together face-to-face,” said Heaven, whose work helped to win the festival and Friends of Environmental and Ecological Learning a 2010 education Enviro-hero award from the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust.
Heaven said it wasn’t easy to decide to step down from the role, but that it was time.
“It’s such an incredible educational event, I just feel very happy that I’ve been able to be a part of it, and been able to give it 110 per cent the whole way,” said Heaven.
The HMKCWF co-ordinator position is open until Nov. 30. To learn more visit www.hmwaterfestival.ca.