This year’s Bayberry Wreath honoree: Tracy Heinz

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 10:30am

When Tracy Heinz was growing up here on Block Island, she said she and her siblings and friends were “always outside, we just explored everywhere.” There was the Enchanted Forest to play in, open fields, and not as many people as there are now. A child’s life on Block Island was decidedly low-tech. “We’d make bows and arrows,” she said. “I'd go out to feed the deer by hand.” 

It was a life intextricably matched with nature, and those experiences have informed how Heinz has approached her job as Head Teacher at the Early Learning Center. She wants the natural world to be an important part — an integral part — of the learning process, and as a result, Heinz has helped instill a love of nature in a generation of Block Island kids. 

And that is why Tracy Heinz has been named this year's Bayberry Wreath Award honoree. Heinz will be officially honored at the annual Conservancy Day event at the Narragansett Inn on Saturday, May 13.

Heinz started at the Early Learning Center in 2001, back when it was located in the basement of the Harbor Church. When the facility moved over to the then newly built Early Learning Center the next year, one of Heinz's first priorities was to make sure the outdoor playing area stayed natural so that the pupils would be surrounded by grass and elements from the natural world. If you take a look into the play area at the Early Learning Center, there isn’t any plastic or manufactured toys or equipment in the areas where the three- to five-year-olds play.

When taking a tour with Heinz through the play area — and inside the school itself — her enthusiasm and commitment to keeping the students’ surroundings as organic as possible is infectious.

“I think that's how kids learn best. You work with them in the classroom, and outside they can just play and it’s where they seem happiest. Everything they need to learn and grow is right there. Their imaginations just take over,” Heinz said. The kids are often on field trips, too, and the things they gather, whether it’s shells or the odd piece of wood, are incorporated into their play and activities. When the class is outside, they also make a habit of picking up trash, either at the beach or on one of the trails. “Half of our projects are made from the things we find outside,” she said. 

In her letter nominating Heinz for the Bayberry Wreath Award, Island Free Library Director Kristin Baumann said:

“It is immediate, after only a single step or even just a peek into the Block Island Early Learning Center, you are aware you have entered into a special place — a place centered on childhood learning, grounded in the natural world.”

Now that her earliest pupils have grown up and graduated from the Block Island School, she has seen the full arc of their stories and how those early years of integrating nature has helped shape a group of young people that are unusually connected to nature. Block Island kids know the value of open space, they are aware of the value of the land, and of the need to keep our waters clean.

Heinz is the daughter of Gail and Denny Heinz — her father has been active in conservation and on many town boards for years — and her sister Corrie is a previous Bayberry Wreath honoree. 

Heinz doesn’t limit her activities just to her pupils at the Early Learning Center. She’s a mom raising her own Block Island-bred son, Mathias, and she’s also been a sports coach at the Block Island School for years. She is a member of the Island Free Library Board of Trustees and a member of the school’s Improvement Team.

Baumann concluded her letter by saying: 

“It will be the actions of these future leaders that will determine the fate of Block Island and future conservation efforts. Tracy’s commitment to nurturing island kids through naturalist programs, nature-based projects, and a natural playground will result in home-grown Block Island citizens connected to and ultimately reverent towards their island, its open space, clear waters, and clean air. It is only by establishing this foundation early (and often!) that Block Island has a chance at continued conservation efforts.” 

“It is for these reasons and in respect to the wisdom of Rachel Carson that so definitely defines what Tracy Heinz means to all of us, that I nominate her for the Bayberry Wreath Award.”

In keeping with that, when asked if she loves her job, Heinz said, “I think about how absolutely lucky I am to go to work and play outside with these kids.”

That is why we are pleased to name Tracy Heinz as the 2017 recipient of the Bayberry Wreath Award.

First awarded in 1985, the Bayberry Wreath Award “recognizes individuals who embody the spirit of land conservation on Block Island.”