DANVILLE — For some fifth-graders, knowing your only restroom option is a pit toilet can ruin your concentration during class.
Jeremy Parish knows this from teaching Outdoor School at Kennekuk County Park in Vermilion County.
And that's just one reason he's excited that the new education center — which will have indoor restrooms with hot water — is quickly progressing to the construction phase now that the project has received a $1 million grant from the state.
Parish said teaching in the new center will only enhance the outdoor program that's been such a success over the last 40 years by providing a more modern facility, more space and better use of technology.
Currently, classrooms for the Outdoor School program are housed in a converted garage and an addition to the current nature center.
"We're excited," said Parish, who teaches the classes in conjunction with Lara Darling. "It will mean less distractions for the kids, and make it a little easier for us, too."
State Sen. Mike Frerichs and state Rep. Chad Hays recently announced that the Vermilion County Conservation District will receive a $1 million grant for the construction of phase one of the Kennekuk Environmental Education Center.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources Open Space Land and Development Grant is being administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
It's the first phase in a $5 million, three-phase project to build the education center and, in the later phases, a roof prairie, museum room and timber-framed conference center with a capacity to seat 500 people. The conservation district and its foundation have been planning and raising funds for this project for several years.
Ken Konsis, executive director of the conservation district, said the grant means construction on phase one can begin this year. He expects the project to be bid in coming months and construction to begin by late summer or early fall. Konsis said he expects construction to take about a year, so students in the Outdoor School program could be learning about the outside on the inside in 2013.
In 2005, the Vermilion County Conservation District Foundation received a donation that allowed for the hiring of an architect who has already done all of the preliminary design work on the center. The building will include as much green technology as possible.
The three-phase project ties in with other outdoor recreation plans in East Central Illinois, according to Konsis.
The Kickapoo Trail, a 24-mile multi-use recreational path that would follow the former CSX railroad tracks, would connect Urbana to Kickapoo State Park, which is adjacent to Kennekuk County Park. A planned scenic river trail would connect that 24-mile trail to Kennekuk and the environmental education center, and the center would serve as the eastern trail head.
Konsis said the banquet center was also designed to host large gatherings, like conferences, because there currently are no facilities in Vermilion County that can accommodate up to 500 people. The conservation district is hosting the National Walnut Council's annual meeting this summer, but had to move it out of the county because no local facility could handle the attendance, he said.
Konsis said fundraising for phases two and three will continue with a search for more grants and private funding. No local real-estate tax dollars or bonds will be used for the project.
But the main purpose for the project, Konsis said, is the construction of the new classroom facility for the Outdoor School program that's celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Parish said the program teaches the students about their world and is an introduction to some of the science they'll learn in the upper grades, and teachers in the county school districts have come to rely on it .
"Outdoor education connects them to the ground, their world," he said. "They learn some of these things now to figure out how the world works."