Engaging in the natural world



A few years ago, with retirement looming in the not-too-distant future, longtime educators Bebe Cifaldi and Karen Penale each took a class that built upon their love of the outdoors without so much as an inkling that it would completely reshape their individual and collective futures.

The master naturalist course offered through the Lowcountry Institute had Cifaldi and Penale thinking about teaching in a different way. Cifaldi, who took the class in 2018, said it completely changed the way that she taught, while Penale began to see education as having less to do with classrooms and more to do with helping students – young and old – learn by engaging with the natural world.

“It completely changed my life,” Penale said.

“Everything that I’ve done after that, from 2019 till now, has been me trying to figure out a way to get outside, to teach the kids what I learned and have them experience it.”

While the pair were brimming with enthusiasm and ideas, they didn’t have an outlet to put it all into practice. In the spirit of true entrepreneurship, they didn’t wait for an opportunity to come along and find them. Cifaldi and Penale created their own opportunity, and they did it at breakneck speed. “We just came up with this idea at the end of April,” Cifaldi said. “Literally, I decided in April to retire, and we started talking about this in May.”

That idea became Hilton Head Island-based WonderFun Learning Outdoor Education, which offers week-long nature camps and field trips for school-aged children. Its mission is to connect students to the natural world by immersing them “in nature to discover, investigate, explore and share with a heightened sense of awareness of the sounds and sights of the Lowcountry.” By the time this past school year finished, WonderFun’s first camp was ready to go.

Penale wasn’t exactly planning to retire at the time that Cifaldi did, but she decided to take the leap as well.

“Bebe retired, and I said, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Penale added. “I retired, too. We decided to go for it. We knew we could do it. The biggest problem was that we didn’t do it in January, because in February is when all the camps start registering kids.”

The plans for the WonderFun camps started with a goal of having 20 students in each session, and the new business owners were concerned that they wouldn’t fill the session, particularly considering their late start. In fact, their first session drew six campers, but an important lesson came to light.

“We had six the first time, and our numbers have sustained, which we’re really happy about,” Penale said. “It helped us to know that we had to keep it small. Next year we figure it will be crazy busy because we will be advertising in February. We have had great support from people on Facebook. It’s been crazy, the response of everyone. We know that we have the population.”

Outside of the camps, which have included field trips to locations like Honey Horn Plantation, Jarvis Creek Park, Fish Haul Beach and Historic Mitchelville, WonderFun Learning also offers personalized nature experiences for both residents and tourists. They refer to these as backyard field trips.

“When visitors come to town, we can meet them at their house and do a beach walk with them and do a presentation about turtles or alligators or shore birds,” Cifaldi said. “We will go to the family and do these backyard field trips. We also do that at the schools. Our schools have beautiful properties. We can show the kids what’s in their own backyard. That’s one of the avenues that we’re pursuing.”

Given WonderFun’s whirlwind start, Cifaldi said they haven’t had the opportunity to develop a longterm plan, but she and Penale both have some ideas including developing relationships with the school systems and purchasing a small bus for field trip transportation.

“The short-term goal was to get the camps started,” Cifaldi said. “One of the things we want to do is offer a birding class “I Wonder About Birds” and “I Wonder About the Salt Marsh,” based on the salt marsh. That’s next. We haven’t thought past that.”

WonderFun got its start with the retirement of Cifaldi and Penale, but anyone would be hard pressed to call them retired now.

“We’re very happy to be here, but we failed retirement,” Penale said with a laugh.

“We’re working harder than we have for the past 25 years. This is going to be a good thing. This is something that’s needed. We need our children to get outside.”