League Lines: Uncle Ike Turns 30

Don and Uncle Ike hanging birdhouses

Iowa >> Uncle Ike turned 30 in October, and he celebrated in his usual way: Bringing youth and nature together.

Uncle Ike is not a real person, of course. But if he were, his name would appear alongside a photo of Marshall County Chapter member Don Montgomery. In 1983, Montgomery saw the need for an environmental education program for elementary school children such as his young son. “Kids now a’ days just do not get to explore the great outdoors like I did as a child,” he was often heard to say.

Montgomery realized his vision with the help of naturalist Judy Levings and his fellow League members. They designed the Uncle Ike Nature Program to create positive outdoor experiences for youth in 1st through 5th grades. Once the program was up and running, Montgomery and Levings took Uncle Ike on the road to promote the concept to other League chapters. In 1988, the League produced a “Meet Uncle Ike” booklet to help chapters start youth conservation education programs. Many League chapters today host Uncle Ike and other League-branded youth conservation programs. Don passed away several years ago, but his legacy lives on in the program he founded.

Don Montgomery’s legacy also lives on at the Marshall County Chapter, which continues to provide volunteers and funding for their local Uncle Ike program. The core program includes a monthly Uncle Ike event plus a three-day summer camp. The first and final monthly programs are held at the Marshall County Chapter. The rest of the monthly programs take place at the county conservation center.

There are no fees to participate in monthly events, and Uncle Ike program leaders encourage parents and grandparents to take part with the children. “Parents tell me that one of the reasons they like the program is that they don’t just drop off the kids and leave,” says Diane Hall, a Marshall County Chapter member and a naturalist with the Marshall County Conservation Board. Hall took over for Levings in 1986 as the Uncle Ike program’s naturalist and collaborated with Don Montgomery for many years on the program’s offerings.

Montgomery and Hall later created a Junior Ikes program for youth who wanted to stay involved after 5th grade. However, “there just wasn’t enough of Don and me to go around,” explains Hall, so that part of the program was phased out. However, Uncle Ike alums can stay involved by serving as junior leaders for the summer camp, which is held at the Marshall County Chapter. “It’s nice that we can help develop leadership skills in kids through that junior leader experience,” says Hall.

One way Hall keeps the program fresh is by using a different theme each year. Last year’s theme, Outdoor Adventure, focused on outdoor recreation opportunities, from archery and astronomy to nature photography and hunting. “We try to give kids a reason to get outdoors and promote a hobby they might continue with,” says Hall. Today, alumni are bringing their own children to spend a day outdoors with Uncle Ike.

The Uncle Ike Nature Program earned the first Chris Holt Youth Environmental Education Award in 1997, awarded by the Iowa Association of Naturalists and Iowa Conservation Education Coalition to recognize Outstanding Environmental Education Programs for Youth.

“The benefits Uncle Ike provides to the youth, communities, and county are many,” says Hall. “It provides environmental education opportunities, creates lasting positive memories of outdoor experiences, develops environmental stewardship in our future leaders, provides volunteer and leadership experiences for youth and adults, and gives youth and families involvement in positive environmental actions.”

Hall estimates that approximately 9,000 children and families have participated in the program over the past 30 years. Her advice for other League chapters: Start simple — and get help! “Don’t try to do it all by yourself,” she counsels. “Your local conservation board, department of natural resources, area teachers, and other conservation groups are all great resources you can tap into to create engaging outdoor education programming. Instead of everyone working separately trying to reach the same kids, we should work together and give them a quality experience.” You can find a wealth of program ideas in the League’s “Engaging Youth in the Outdoors” chapter manual.