Newport alumni group turns focus to nature center

Arthur Jeppe remembers the times he and his former Newport Harbor High School classmates would go to the Environmental Nature Center and dig into the dirt, searching for bugs. And the times they would get lost on the grounds' unpaved trails, surrounded by brush and weeds.

Memories like these that still burn brightly for him and inspire him to keep the experiences possible for the youth of the future.

"Can you imagine coming to this every day?" Jeppe said as he walked below a canopy of trees and near a stream of water during a recent visit at the Newport Beach educational center off 16th Street and Dover Drive. "Now I see its magic in my son's eyes."

The Environmental Nature Center, he said, is where all ages can walk, smell a variety of scents, observe birds and explore nature first hand. So when the nature center kicked off an ENC Nature Preschool campaign for young children of Orange County to learn and appreciate the environment, Jeppe was on a quest to help raise funds in any way he could.

The first stop for Jeppe was his Newport Harbor alumni group — what he calls, "good friends doing great things."

About six to eight months ago, Jeppe founded The Alumni Collective, a group of about 100 Newport Harbor High School alumni that is focused on strengthening their friendships but also supporting local causes that benefit the community.

"We're lifelong friends and we realized that there were opportunities for us to spend more time together while giving back to the community," said Jeppe, class of 1983. "There's this thread that runs so strong in Newport Beach and we have special memories of this place. Whatever we can do to support it, we want to do it."

It's why he and members are helping raise funds for the development of the ENC Nature Preschool.

Jeppe also has personal experience with the center as a student of the man who paved the way for the ENC more than 40 years ago.

In 1972, Newport Harbor High School was constructing an Olympic-size swimming pool on campus. The excavated dirt was dumped near a gully that ran behind the Newport-Mesa Unified School District administrative offices. During his 17th year teaching science at Newport Harbor High, Robert House saw the land as a perfect fit for a living nature laboratory.

The vacant weed patch, he thought, could become an educational facility for students to explore and discover nature. With the help of the Junior League, he found a nonprofit and The Environmental Nature Center or ENC was born.

"We've come a long way," House said while on vacation in Wyoming. "We didn't have many funds so we bought all these bare roots. Today, those trees have grown. It's a beautiful place."

Instead of hiring landscape designers, House enlisted his students to volunteer at the five-acre land planting native trees, shrubs and flowers. He said they built log fences and established trails and ponds.

That past, House said, set the roots for future children who will be able to engage in the nature preschool.

"There aren't many opportunities that children have in learning about the natural world," said Bo Glover, ENC executive director for the past 20 years. "With this preschool we want to get them at a formative age where they're going to get an early start in environmental education."

"I have one rule," Glover said. "They need to start their day outdoors."

House, who is a member of The Alumni Collective, said he is appreciative of his former students' mission in preserving the center and in supporting the nature preschool.

"It's a blessing," House said. "All this took some thought when we planted seeds for the center and now the new alumni is helping to support it because of their memories. This will be an asset to the community."

The ENC preschool campaign received a $1 million donation from a local philanthropist who also pledged $3 million in matching challenge funds.

Membership fees for the alumni group will benefit the ENC.

Jeppe said the group is also planning to host farm-to-table dinners, wine-tastings, family sleepovers and more on the ENC property unless otherwise noted.

"This is Newport Harbor alumni coming together to do the right thing," Jeppe said. "The greatest thing is that we're building out a legacy."

For more information, visit thealumnicollective.com.

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