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Building a hands-on future

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Betsy and Chris Mathas of the Natural Resources Center in Butte Falls .

Q: What do you love about living in Butte Falls?

Chris: I get more traction and more out of my day by living in Butte Falls. My skill sets are more valuable here and I feel valued. The remoteness is nice. I’ve always wanted to live in rural Oregon. When I moved here 27 years ago, I looked at one piece of land. I just said, “this is it. It’s far enough from civilization but ”

Betsy: But close enough as well. I really enjoy being on our property. We have the freedom to be ourselves and to not worry about being too loud. We like music, we like to talk, and we’re pretty active.

Q: What is the Butte Falls Natural Resources Center?

Chris: The Natural Resource Center was conceived in 2011 when Oregon decommissioned the 100-year-old state fish hatchery. It was the first fish hatchery in Oregon. Butte Falls formed a charter school and adopted natural resources as their theme that same year. The school acquired 10 of the 13 acres from the state. That did not include the three acres that had residential structures and buildings that housed the fish hatchery. We were able to acquire those in 2018 by writing applications and providing assurances to the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of the Interior.

I became the NRC development director to rehabilitate the structures and create an outdoor hands-on learning center. Our partners from Southern Oregon University are putting laboratory space inside the old hatchery building, which will support forest management and wildlife habitat research. We’re going to be researching and developing new products and resources that have been underdeveloped. It’s important for Butte Falls to find a new way to sustain itself as timber production is diminishing. We’d like to create products and manufacturing from raw resources. The business incubator part is going to be very big.

Q: Could this be a model for Butte Falls and other small rural communities?

Betsy: That’s what we’re hoping.

Chris: A lot of government facilities are just lying fallow. Our model includes partners from Southern Oregon and the West Coast. We are working with other public schools and nonprofits to create an outdoor education and events center that’s available to everybody.

Q: What are your dreams for how the Natural Resources Center will support education?

Betsy: My hope is the future will look a lot like it did when I was younger, with hands-on learning. We had home economics, auto shop, arts and wood shop classes. We had day camps. We want to bring wonder back to the kids.

Chris: Students react differently to a contrived problem than a real problem. We want them to be involved in solving real problems. When students see that they’re part of something bigger, they’re actually helping make their future brighter; they really dig in.

Q: How did you as a contractor get involved in school and community?

Chris: Everything I’m doing here is everything I’ve ever really wanted to do. When I was 13, I had my own outdoor laboratory in my backyard. I was always in science classes. I was active in Boy Scouts. My interests prepared me for what I’m doing now. As a building contractor working in Medford and commuting home to Butte Falls, I saw little of this community for the first 10 years.

I was approached by Julie Freeman in 2004 to join a grant writing committee. I wanted to volunteer in a wood shop class to help students build sailboats and teach them to sail. I wrote my first grant to get materials to build a sailboat, and from there it sort of snowballed. I was able to work as a volunteer from 8 a.m. until 9:30 and then go to work. I guided students building three sailboats in four years. Every success created the possibility for additional projects.

Q: Betsy, you’ve worked with young people as an attendance specialist and now a teacher. Tell me about your motto, “Failure leads to success.”

Betsy: If you don’t make mistakes, you never learn from them. I encourage young people to address what’s broken and figure out a way to make it how they want it. It’s a skill. You have to learn how to do that to function in the world. You have to be able to pivot.

Q: How did you get involved with ceramics, jewelry and art?

Betsy: That’s what I studied in high school and college. It’s always been a passion of mine. It’s something that grounded me. If it wasn’t for art classes in high school, I would not have finished.

Q: You both seem to have a place in your heart for kids who need hands-on learning.

Betsy: I do, because they are me. As an attendance specialist, I understood why kids might not want to attend school. I tried to find out why they weren’t attending and figure out how to get them back to school. In this day and age, you have to have an education in order to be more secure in your life.

Chris: We are both poster kids for alternative education programs. I grew up in Sunnyvale, California. But I spent a lot of time in rural Indiana with my grandparents and extended family. We were third-generation coal miners and soybean farmers. I had exposure to rural America and to Silicon Valley growing up.

Q: What is the future of Butte Falls and small rural towns in general?

Chris: The future is up to the small communities. It’s possible that a lot of small communities will die. That doesn’t happen if you can keep your young people interested in the community. As we prepare our young people to be better citizens, we have to find a way of connecting them back to the community. If they get a post-secondary education, that education can be used to help their community thrive. We hope the NRC will develop the economic capacity that will connect young people with employment opportunities to keep them here.

Betsy: We want to respect the old yet create new traditions for Butte Falls.

Chris: Because of COVID, there is interest in moving to rural communities. We’re on the precipice of seeing a migration into rural communities. Butte Falls is working on purchasing 400 forested acres around the town for future opportunities.

Q: What have you learned about community from Butte Falls?

Betsy: I grew up in a suburb and I didn’t know my neighbors. Here I know them even with more distance between us. Neighbors are more meaningful in Butte Falls. I often felt more alone in the suburbs than I do here.

Chris: Until the recent Obenchain fire, I didn’t really understand the strength of our community. Until we almost lost our home and the whole community almost burned down, I didn’t see the steel. We didn’t have federal agency firefighters up here fighting the fire for the first four days. It was the volunteer fire department and the logger community with their bulldozers and their water tenders that saved our house. Somebody, I still don’t know who, one of the loggers on a bulldozer cut off the fire 60 feet from our house.

Betsy: It restored our faith, for sure. It was frightening. The resilience of a small community is amazing. I didn’t know we had it in us, and we do. It is a restorative place for me.

Chris: Sometimes you feel like people aren’t concerned about their neighbors, but they clearly are. The last couple of weeks, I’ve been thanking everybody that was involved, from our BLM representative to the volunteer fire department and the school board. We had to camp out at the NRC for two weeks while we were evacuated from our home.

Q: What would make your community stronger?

Betsy: More community involvement. If we could get the people who complain to be active, then things would change. If they just sit and complain, who’s supposed to step up and be the energy that makes positive change happen?

Chris: I hope we’re offering an opportunity for people to be part of the solution. We’re building an outdoor pavilion with a wood-fired pizza oven and smoker. We’ll have stage for theater and music. We’ll have sporting events like archery and beach volleyball.

Q: What does it take to be successful?

Chris: The most significant piece is persistence. If you’re consistent and persistent and you aren’t disparaging of your own efforts, people want to be a part of it. If you’re having fun, people want to be a part of it. There’s a manifestation of hope here. Part of our job is to help connect Butte Falls to the future.

Q: What is clearer to you now?

Chris: I have a greater sense of urgency than ever in my life. It’s clear to me that the only people we can count on is us. There’s so much fear-generated response, we generate fear ourselves. We just have to pull our feet out of the mud and start taking steps.

Betsy: It’s clear to me that education is much more important now than it ever has been. What’s clear is that we all need to work together. Nobody can do this on their own. I choose to be hopeful.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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Butte Falls Natural Resources Center

Butte Falls Charter School is developing a decommissioned Oregon fish hatchery into a Natural Resources Center for forest research and management. The 13-acre site will serve as:

  • indoor and outdoor classrooms
  • community gardens
  • an events center
  • outdoor recreation
  • emergency housing for homeless youth
  • residence and research space for SOU graduate students

The NRC will house classrooms for culinary arts, food preservation, sewing, plant science, mushroom laboratory and hydroponics. A native tree nursery is being developed for reforestation projects. The NRC will serve as an incubator for new products and businesses within the Butte Falls community.

Butte Falls students in shop classes are working with construction crews to build a large covered pavilion for events. The events center could host weddings, reunions and celebrations. Theater and music in the pavilion will provide entertainment opportunities. Picnic grounds and outdoor recreation facilities will serve as a gathering place for school and community groups.

For more information, or if you want to be involved, email Chris Mathas at cmathas@buttefalls.k12.or.us

Chris and Betsy Mathas stand on a bridge in a pollinator garden put in by students at the Natural Resources Center in Butte Falls. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune