Life in Our Foothills – April 2024 – Nonprofit Teaching Nature Through Art – Champions for Wildlife

Published 8:10 am Tuesday, April 2, 2024

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By Emily Williams


When Loti Woods and Dale Weiler met in their sixties, they never expected their future to include teaching children. Life is an adventure, though, and the most fulfilling and joyful experiences of a person’s time on earth often come in unexpected ways. After a few years of marriage, the couple started a nonprofit that promoted the conservation of endangered species by sharing their knowledge with the public. Following a presentation they gave on conservation at a Polk County teacher orientation two years ago, teachers began to ask Loti and Dale to teach wildlife lessons to their students. Within two months, the couple had taught lessons on the endangered American Red Wolf to over 500 children in Polk County. 

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Loti and Dale, as well as one of the nonprofit’s teachers, Alexis, reflect on the past two years of their organization, Champions for Wildlife. They share about the growth of their nonprofit, the impact their lessons have had on children, and the ways in which art can connect families not only with nature, but with each other.

Champions for Wildlife does not have a brick-and-mortar space or hundreds of established teachers across the country, nor does the nonprofit need it. The organization simply has a PO box, a website, an associate director, two traveling teachers, and an undeniable passion for educating local children about wildlife through art. Dale Weiler had been a sculptor long before the establishment of Champions for Wildlife, so he knew from the beginning that he wanted their lessons to include an art element. 

“Art touches people in a very special, deep way,” shares Dale. “We wanted to use that art element to reach kids. We are finding that it crosses all kinds of barriers—language barriers, age, backgrounds. Kids just relate to art. When we go into the classrooms, we like to give them some education, but we also want them to get involved in an art project so they can really immerse themselves and get closer to the animal that we’re talking about in class.”

The art aspect of the lessons is what makes this organization so unique to the area. Loti refers to this piece of their teaching method as their “secret sauce” because, “whether they are gifted, special needs, or they don’t speak the same language, every child has done the art project.” Students feel included and accomplished when they can create something with their own hands.

Alexis Hinchliffe, who teaches art lessons for the organization, has seen firsthand how powerful their method can be. Within an hour-long lesson, Alexis has seen students’ entire perspectives on certain species change from disdain or disinterest to love and reverence. Alexis believes the forty-minute art portion of the lesson is what “solidifies the love of the animal for the kids, to take what they’ve learned and then create something to showcase it. Art shows appreciation, and so for them to create something and talk through why they put certain details in their art, they get to show what they learn in a way that’s not a standardized test, but they also get to create something beautiful.” 

After the lesson, the students get to take what they create, be it a clay sculpture of a hellbender or a collage of a butterfly, home to show their families. Alexis, Loti, and Dale constantly hear stories within the community of how kids are sharing their newfound knowledge of wildlife with their parents and siblings through the artwork they create. Dale claims that “these children are finding a voice, and we want to inspire and empower them to get out and make a difference. Our megaphone has gotten a lot bigger and a lot louder with all these kids spreading the word.”

The children are certainly using their voices to promote wildlife conservation in their relational spheres. 

“We’re trying to not only reach the child but also the family,” says Loti. “Parents right now feel like they don’t have any power or control over what their kids are learning. By involving them in what we’re doing, we’re giving them some of that control back.” 

Champions for Wildlife is both connecting families with their child’s learning and inviting families to become ambassadors for local wildlife. 

“We want everyone working together—just like it does in nature,” Dale says. “Everyone has to be working in harmony. We’re going through this period in society where there is a polarization of ideas and mindsets. The more that people can work together, the more common ground they can find. We’re working to that point to bring teachers, students, and families together.”

Teachers, students, and families are not the only ones impacted by the work of this organization; staff and volunteers have been changed as well. Numerous volunteers have shared with Loti and Dale that working with the children has invigorated them and given them a new lease on life. 

Alexis has also been touched by the experiences she has had teaching for the organization. While she has only been working for the nonprofit for less than a year, Alexis has already grown so much as a person. One way she has grown is by slowing down to appreciate nature. “As you start appreciating things more, whatever it is, you start allowing yourself to slow down and observe it,” Alexis shares. She finds beauty “in slowing down and seeing how people, animals and plants are all engaging with each other. I tell kids all the time that the scientists who are learning about animals can’t just go out one time and know what’s happening with the animal. There’s this patience, and the more they see this animal, the more they know about it and fall in love with it.” Alexis is learning to practice what she preaches, going against the grain of fast-paced society and falling in love with her natural surroundings.

A community’s natural surroundings are vital to the flourishing of that area, which is why Champions for Wildlife wants to keep children curious about the wildlife in their own backyard. “Our mission is to inspire kids to be champions for wildlife, using art and education, with the idea that children are the future of our planet,” states Loti. “If anybody is going to save our planet, it’s going to be them. But if we don’t instill that love of wildlife in them early, then we’re in trouble.”

Loti and Dale have amazing plans in store for their organization to continue instilling a love for wildlife in the hearts of local children and kids across the country. They plan to teach their free lessons to 200 classes in Polk and Henderson counties during the 2024-25 school year. Throughout the spring and summer, they also plan to host free events for families in the area, including a hellbender event on May 4 at Harmon Field. More information on their events and registration are included on their website.

In 2025, Champions for Wildlife will also launch an education portal so teachers and parents across the country can access lesson plans on American Red Wolves, hellbenders, pollinators, birds, and other species for free. Alexis is enjoying prepping the materials for this portal because “the need is there. Teachers see power in our programs and see the power for the students. We’re not going to be the kind of organization who doesn’t share our programs because we created them. If we share it, the more people are being reached to protect our animals and our planet.”

Champion for Wildlife’s goal is not to duplicate other wildlife organizations or keep their program to themselves. The nonprofit’s purpose is to enhance the conservation efforts already taking place, partner with other organizations, and spur the next generation to care for the planet. In the words of Dale Weiler, “Everyone can make a difference.” The organization Dale and Loti founded is a testament that everyone can have a positive impact on this world, no matter their age. 

To learn more about Champions for Wildlife, schedule a lesson for your classroom, make a monetary donation, find information on upcoming events, or register to volunteer, visit