On a blustery Saturday in November – one that saw temperatures drop a dozen degrees in a matter of 20 minutes – a group of dedicated volunteers elected to spend their morning working outside in the rain. Why? Because the students of The Biome School in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood deserve a better outdoor space to play and learn.
“We used to call this the mud pit when it was wet and the dust bowl when it was dry,” says Bill Kent, president and CEO of The Biome School, referring to the patch of land next to the charter school on Olive Street. “It was pretty awful.”
“They also had these two wooden pyramids that were more like hazards out here,” adds Jim Johnson III, chair of Veiled Prophet’s Community Service Initiative. “Those were the first to go.”
The volunteers, members of Veiled Prophet and the Royal Vagabonds and their families, had been preparing for the outdoor learning center build for months, in partnership with Edward Jones, U.S. Bank Private Client Reserve, PK Construction LLC, Forum Studios, Civil Design, Inc. and The Biome School. It’s their second such partnership, following a successful build in 2016 at Zion Child Development Center in Ferguson.
“It’s been great,” says Aaron Fields, a member of both the Royal Vagabonds and Veiled Prophet. “Everyone arrived early this morning ready and willing. Some even brought their own shovels and rakes, and we have a great team of guys with the playground, so it just all came together. It’s fun to see the start and finish and that people got their kids involved, too, which is another big positive.”
The students who will eventually spend time on this playground number 140 this year. This is The Biome School’s third year in operation, with classes ranging from kindergarten through third grade. A 501(c)(3) charter school sponsored by the University of Missouri-St. Louis, The Biome School grew out of the Youth Learning Center, an after-school STEAM (the ubiquitous acronym for “science, technology, engineering, art and math”) enrichment program for public school students established in 2003.
“One of our goals was to create a small school in the city of St. Louis that was different from any of the schools around it,” Kent says. “So [we’re] really heavily focused on engagement with our students. The point is to make learning fun and engaging. And the kids have a lot of voice and choice in what we do here.”
Kent says The Biome School curriculum focuses on project-based learning, weaving key subjects such as math and literacy into various programs throughout the year, like the two-week residency last year’s second-graders had at the Saint Louis Zoo. He’s excited to complete the outdoor learning center at The Biome School, which will feature a playground and a Socratic-style outdoor classroom setup, including a vertical garden and new landscaping with 1,100 plants, come spring.
“The kids didn’t have a proper place to play, which we think is a really important part of learning,” Kent says. “And we think learning happens everywhere. Now because of the Veiled Prophet Foundation and the Royal Vagabonds, it can even happen in our play space, so we’re really excited about that.”
The playground build is a nice tie-in to the Royal Vagabonds’ main philanthropic focus: awarding sizable college scholarships to inner-city youth. Fields says they provide sizable scholarships for 10 to 15 students a year.
The Veiled Prophet’s tradition of service to the St. Louis community dates back to 1878. For the past 15 years, the Veiled Prophet has redoubled its community service efforts, deploying its members and their families on dozens of projects that have had a lasting impact on St. Louis families. The Biome School outdoor learning center is just one of 28 projects the group has tackled this year. Veiled Prophet’s Community Service Initiative has contributed more than 3,000 hours with 24 different organizations in the area and boasts a roster of more than 750 active volunteers in 2017 alone. On the same Saturday as The Biome School project, another group of 100 Veiled Prophet volunteers gathered at a warehouse in Fenton, putting together care packages for Operation Sunscreen, a nonprofit that ships the packages to members of the Missouri National Guard serving overseas.
Johnson says he’s proud of Veiled Prophet’s efforts this year and the strides the organization has made in prioritizing service for the last 15 years.
“We’re adapting and changing the culture to be one about volunteering and community service first,” says Johnson. “It’s all about making St. Louis a better place to live for everyone. Whether that’s through the VP Parade, Fair St. Louis or all the things that go unseen, we really think we need to lead with community service. If we don’t take ownership, who will? We’re in a position to help, so we should.”