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It’s Hard to Be Distracted at the McKeever Center

SANDY LAKE, Pa. – A short while ago, Slippery Rock University was looking for a venue to hold its student retreat. Upon learning that the McKeever Environmental Learning Center’s Wi-Fi was down, administrators quickly booked the venue in Sandy Lake, Pa.

Why McKeever’s loss of Wi-Fi turned a deal breaker at any other venue into a selling point, has to do with the nature of the center.

The McKeever Center consists of 10 buildings spread over 205 acres of woods. All the buildings are within an easy walking distance of each other, connected by paths.

Student groups, weddings, and business retreats are regularly held at the center.

Sean Voorhees, one of the environmental educators, says that unlike most venues, “The big draw for [McKeever] is to get away” from the business environment.

The Roy W. Wilt auditorium seats 186 people and makes available video and slide projectors as well as audio equipment.

About 100 yards away sits the Discovery Building, which houses a library and three classrooms for breakout sessions.

“The nice thing about it is it’s kind of bare bones, so the group can come in and arrange it however they want,” Voorhees says.

The dining hall can hold about 100, with extra seating available on a wood patio outside.

From there, it’s just a short walk, past one of the two outdoor amphitheaters at McKeever, to its three lodges.

Each has 52 beds, with two large dormitory-style wings lined with bunk beds. In the middle sits a shared living space with a large fireplace.

Voorhees says the lodges are popular with a nearby quilting guild.

“They set all their tables up in the discovery building and quilt all day and all night,” he says. “Then they come back here and sleep for an hour or two and go back down. That’s all they do.”

Voorhees allows that not everyone wants to sleep in a bunk bed, so McKeever has two lodges that he describes as more homelike.

Each contains five bedrooms, two beds in each. And there is a kitchen, dining room and living room. Many clients book them for business retreats, he says.

“You’re either going to hate each other or love each other when you’re done,” Voorhees says with a smile.

When it’s not hosting events, McKeever sticks to its mission.

In 1974, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania created McKeever to help educate the community about nature.

One way staff fulfills the mission is hosting nature retreats for school children in the area.

The Earth Keepers program, a three-day residential experience for fourth- and fifth-graders, will see 700 students this semester alone.

“It’s all hands-on learning,” says environmental educator Julie Ferringer. “We focus not only on giving them the knowledge, but also on deepening their feelings for the natural world around them.”

Over the next few weeks, students from seven schools will spend three days at the center. And they’ll do it without their cell phones.

“They never complain about not being able to bring their cell phones,” Ferringer says.

The most popular activity is the so-called Magic Spot, she says.

Students are told to find a quiet place in the woods to sit, such as on a stump or beneath a tree.

“We have them sit there for 20 to 25 minutes and just really take in the sights and the smells and sounds all around them,” Ferringer says.

And, often to the surprise of the parents, the students love it.

“They love just having that time to sit and relax,” she says.

Pictured: Julie Ferringer and Sean Vorhees are environmental educators at the McKeever Environmental Learning Center in Sandy Lake, Pa.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.