“If you keep quiet, you’ll hear the magic,” says Pamela Jay Weinantz as she leads 95 second-graders single file down a wooded trail along Possum Run Creek.
“Go slow,” she adds, “Walk the woods in silence; with a quiet mind you can experience the world in a different way.”
With her gentle instruction, students begin to hear the creek gurgle, the wind whisper, and the birds chatter. Coming to a meadow, the kids lie on their backs and watch cloud formations. Then, right on cue, Bluebell, the resident red-tailed hawk, soars overhead and dips his wings.
This is how Weinantz shares her love of nature at Wheatfields, a natural arts learning center near Hope, Ind. (pop. 2,140).
In 1993, Weinantz was a busy garden consultant and children’s outdoor educator who recognized she needed to slow down to heal from a chronic illness. Driving down a country road, she noticed an abandoned farmhouse, which belonged to a family relative, and got an idea for realizing a lifelong dream.
“At that time, I was taking the garden into the classroom,” she explains. “By signing a 20-year lease for this farmstead . . . I could bring the children to the garden.”
At first, Weinantz offered floral design workshops and nature walks for children at the farm. As newly planted fields turned lush and green that spring, she named the place Wheatfields.
In 1996, she received nonprofit status for Wheatfields, a center dedicated to educating students on nature and the arts. Now, 3,000 children a year tumble out of school buses, exploring Weinantz’s 1890s whimsically decorated farmhouse and its surrounding 83 acres. Their assignment: find a favorite spot, then write a poem or story about their discoveries.
Inside the house, students quickly discover surprises, such as white chairs nailed to a wall, a collage of vintage farm tools, and nature’s bounty: dried flowers, turkey feathers, a wasp’s nest. In the kitchen, a stuffed monkey perches on a ladder crisscrossing the ceiling. One boy, notebook in hand, crawls in the claw-footed bathtub. Another youngster rocks in a porch swing overlooking the herb garden.
“One poem after another was required as we moved through the house, through the wheat fields, by the running river, and in the shaded woods,” wrote Michael Irons for his sophomore English essay about his field trip to Wheatfields. “I thought peace and enjoyment meant having a Coke in my left hand and a remote control in the other. I was astonished at what time, thought, and concentration on something very simple could offer.”
All ages find Wheatfields a quiet haven from hectic lives. Mildly mentally disabled youth regularly tend the garden, make handmade paper, and recycle junk into saleable items. Children from troubled homes helped build a fence. Community volunteers renovated a barn on the property.
When Carol Burdette of Owings Mills, Md., chanced upon Wheatfields as she attended a wedding in the area, she vowed she’d bring her church youth group there. “I walked in, and the place just spoke to me,” she marvels. “Wheatfields is about learning to live the best that you can right now, about learning to live in the moment. It has helped me enjoy life more.”
In February 1999, a personal tragedy led Weinantz in a new direction. Her rental house where she lived caught fire and only two items were rescued: her guitar and some songs she’d written. “Losing material things didn’t devastate me,” Weinantz says. “But I realized I wanted to share my songs.”
Her first musical release, Heart-Shaped Rocks, earned a Gold Award last year from the Parents’ Choice Foundation—a nonprofit consumer guide to children’s books, songs, toys, and other items.
“Pamela Jay is a hero to this rural community because she inspires us all,” says Kathy Hayes, manager of the Hope Community Center. “You might say she’s the heart of Hope.”