VERO BEACH — On April 14, the Environmental Learning Center in Wabasso held a groundbreaking ceremony for its long-planned event space.

The Thomas R. Schidel Education and Event Pavilion is scheduled to be completed before the end of 2021. Starting in January 2022, the pavilion will be available to host all sorts of events including festivals, weddings, exhibitions, corporate retreats, workshops, banquets, and youth trips. The focus will be events that align with the ELC mission.

The facility will include a multipurpose outdoor classroom and event space/stage that can seat 80-100 people, indoor and outdoor kitchen areas, and a live Oak-ringed grass oval that can accommodate up to 1,000 guests.

This state-of-the-art venue is expected to be a strong revenue producer for the ELC, which has embraced planning for earned income production so that they do not need to be fully dependent on donor/grantor funding or fundraising events.

One of the things that makes this pavilion truly unique is the prevalence of environmental concepts incorporated into the design.

The silver metal roof of the structure will be solar reflective to reduce heat gain. Solar tinting is also featured in the form of high performance “low E” insulated impact glass and tinting to reduce heat.

Energy efficient L.E.D. lighting and motion sensor lighting control will be utilized to conserve energy. Living walls will shade the exterior walls to reduce heat and provide shade to outdoor spaces. A passive cooling system includes the use of ceiling fans and cross ventilation.

The facility is designed for rainwater collection to be used for irrigation, with drought tolerant landscaping to reduce water usage. Recycled plastic and concrete will be used in the building materials.

“This is going to be a game changer for the ELC,” said Board Chair Don Barr. “One of the objectives we have in our business plan is to get more people on our grounds, to increase people here by a fairly large number.”

According to both Mr. Barr and ELC Executive Director Barbara Ford, the donation from Tom and Kay Schidel that made the project possible grew out of a series of meetings where the couple expressed their love for nature.

“Mr. Schidel came to us through a volunteer he had approached to donate a kayak,” Ms. Ford said. “Our volunteer suggested us, we received that donation, and conversations began. Mr. Schidel asked if we had any buildings we wanted to build. Luckily we had done our homework and we had our master plan in place. We had a variety of options to present to Mr. Schidel, and he chose the one that most fit with his philanthropic interests. Mr. Schidel has an extreme love for nature.”

“When Tom asked if we had anything to build, I said ‘yes we do,’” Mr. Barr said. “We had developed a master plan five years ago. We spent several sessions in Tom’s home, talking to Tom and Kay about what the options are. We presented him with four options and said this education and event pavilion would really help us getting people on campus, which would then help us implement the rest of the master plan. This will help us host educational events, community events, private events, getting feet on the ground here.”

“We are thrilled that this project has been given the go-ahead to move forward,” Mr. Schidel said. “I feel confident that it will be put to good use by the wonderful team at the ELC to provide education to benefit our environment and allow for so many other open air community events. “It will be a full-circle venture commemorating my deep affinity for nature and I hope it brings joy to all who experience it.”

According to Ms. Ford, the groundbreaking has been delayed for a long time as the ELC jumped through permitting hurdles for the land, which is owned by Indian River County. Four of the five county commissioners, Joe Earman, Laura Moss, Joe Flescher, and Susan Adams, were at the groundbreaking to show their support.

“Once completed, the Thomas R. Schidel Education and Event Pavilion will represent the first significant step forward taken by the ELC towards realizing the vision set out in its campus master planning work several years ago of transforming our unique Wabasso Island campus into a more compelling place to visit for environmental education, science, human and environmental health, and nature experiences for all ages,” said ELC Vice Board Chair John Daniels. “Not only will this new facility enable new programmatic revenues, but it will also incorporate many environmentally friendly features consistent with our mission.”

The Environmental Learning Center was started in 1989 as a partnership between Pelican Island Audubon Society, Indian River County, and the school district.

“The folks that came before us had the foresight to see that the richness of our natural treasures that we enjoy here, we can’t take for granted,” said Ms. Ford. “They wanted to set aside a special place to make sure that we are educating our youth as they grow up about the importance of our environment, and also our adults.”

“We’re most well known for our partnerships with the school district,” Ms. Ford continued. “All of the third and fourth graders come here for hands-on, feet-wet activities and real learning experiences every year. We also have programs for toddlers all the way through adults. There really is something for everyone here. We’re about providing opportunities to connect individuals with nature.”

It will be about nine months before the pavilion is built and put into use. Ms. Ford said prospective renters are already putting in their requests.

“We’ve had a lot of wedding requests already,” Ms. Ford said. “It’s going to be a multi-use building that we hope is in use every day.”

“The ELC team is so thankful to Mr. Schidel for his investment in our critical mission of connecting folks to nature and empowering eco-champions,” Ms. Ford said. “This versatile structure will make our unique campus an even stronger asset for the community.”

To raise an additional $100,000 needed for completion of the pavilion with high-tech AV, tables, chairs, appliances, and native landscaping, donors Tim and Carol Buhl offered a $50,000 match for any funds raised from the public now through June 30. Those who wish to double the impact of their donation should contact Executive Director Barbara Schlitt Ford at or (772) 589-5050.

For more information about the ELC, visit

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