CORVALLIS - Oregon's youth will have more opportunities to learn about frogs, ferns and the complicated ecosystems in which they live, thanks to the Ford Family Foundation, which has announced a $500,000 challenge grant to expand the 4-H Conference and Education Center near Salem.

The 1-for-1 match will provide funding to construct eight cottages and an education building at the outdoor youth camp where OSU Extension staff design and test hands-on natural resources teaching materials. The estimated cost of the expansion is $1.3 million.

The center serves youth groups such as 4-H clubs, schools, church groups, and scouts. In addition, the center hosts conferences and invites volunteers from around the state to attend training classes. These volunteers then bring the 4-H curriculum to youth groups in their areas, providing a statewide influence.

Jim Rutledge, the OSU Extension state 4-H program leader, says the matching grant will make a big difference for the center's programs by increasing the housing capacity and at the same time increasing space to design and market the natural resources curriculum.

"We have helped develop some nationally recognized education materials," Rutledge said, "but we are not able to effectively market them because of a lack of space. The expansion will allow for the development of new curricula and create space for meeting with clients and training teachers and volunteers to use the materials we've already designed."

He says the expansion will "move 4-H toward our goal of becoming the preferred provider of natural resources education materials for youth in Oregon."

Plans call for a 2,500-square foot education building which will house the center's offices, a 30-person classroom, and curriculum development space. The cottages each will include four bedrooms and a meeting room, and will have "modern" amenities including showers, heating and an increased level of privacy.

"Too often we have had to turn people away, particularly small groups," Rutledge said. "The new cottages are designed for multiple use - that means small groups, large groups, adults, youth, and even families looking for an interesting place for a family reunion where the kids can learn about the natural world."

The Oregon 4-H Conference and Education Center, which is owned and operated by the Oregon 4-H Foundation, is located on 320 acres, including timberland, wetlands, and meadows, and is home to diverse wildlife in several different ecosystems. Facilities include lodges, a dining hall, interpretive trails, and learning shelters that provide covered areas for educational programs.

Each year, more than 7,000 people use the facility, and that number is expected to increase with the expansion.

The Ford Family Foundation was established in 1957 by Kenneth W. and Hallie E. Ford to "give back to the community." The foundation endeavors to help individuals, through organized learning opportunities, to be contributing and successful citizens; and to support non-profit activities, agencies and projects with emphasis on small to mid-sized rural communities in Oregon.

Groundbreaking for the project will begin this fall, Rutledge said.

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Jim Rutledge, 541-737-1737