Arboretum’s Winter Lights festival funds educational outreach

By Lee Elliott – contributor
The North Carolina Arboretum hosts its second-annual Winter Lights festival beginning Nov. 6. The event will help cover costs not provided for with budget cuts, Arboretum officials said.
“We’ve had to do self-sustaining things to keep us afloat,” said Whitney Rigsbee, marketing and public relations manager at the North Carolina Arboretum.
Rigsbee said this Winter Lights is one of several events planned during the offseason to help offset budget shortfalls and fund the many research and educational programs at the Arboretum.
“There will be thousands upon thousands of LED lights in every part of our garden,” Rigsbee said. “It’s going to be a winter wonderland.”
Among the attractions at Winter Lights will be sparkling waterfalls, sound-activated lights and light-based art, Rigsbee said.
Rigsbee said Arboretum staff strive to make Winter Lights accessible to all faiths by not focusing on a specific holiday.
Since the Arboretum’s founding, the North Carolina General Assembly provides yearly funding for the Arboretum and its research programs, according to government officials.
While not strictly an educational institution, the Arboretum joined the 16 campus UNC system in 1986, and receives funding through Western Carolina University as a proxy, according to state records.
“We’re part of the university system, and we’ve had big budget cuts just like everyone else,” Rigsbee said.
Rigsbee said budget cuts mostly affect education outreach programs like summer camps and citizen science groups, as state funding covers operating costs.
“We serve lots of schools in Western North Carolina, and we have a summer nature camp that was recently voted best of WNC,” Rigsbee said.
Jenna Kesgen, UNC Asheville environmental studies adjunct lecturer, said she recently found employment with the Arboretum as an environmental educator, and knows the impact experiential education can have on avid students.
“They do a lot of important work as far as programming. It’s a beautiful facility and they have tons of acreage,” Kesgen said. “As a classroom teacher, it’s a whole other world when you get out into the forest.”
Kesgen said students become more receptive to environmental education when learning experientially, and the experience of visiting the Arboretum can serve as an enjoyable bonding experience.
“It’s amazing how many different programs they have going on,” Kesgen said. “They have a lot of connections with public schools and charter schools, and there is a menu of different topics the schools can choose from.”
Kesgen said the Arboretum educational outreach arm prices programs moderately in order to ensure accessibility to the widest number of school groups.
Kesgen said the Arboretum offers a variety of informative programs geared toward educating people about the dangers of climate change and invasive plant species.
“There was another program I was told about called ‘Citizen Science,’ using the scientific method and monitoring climate conditions around the area,” Kesgen said. “This way adults get an understanding of the basics of environmental science and scientific thought.”
Alex Shiroma, vice president of UNCA’s chapter of Active Studies for a Health Environment and environmental studies student, said he advocates visiting the Arboretum and sees many benefits from its existence.
“Places like the Arboretum, the botanical gardens, or even random parks around town and on campus are designed for mindful appreciation,” Shiroma said.
Shiroma said nature reserves provide reasons for the general public to stop and appreciate nature.
“Having these places designed for beauty and understanding, I think, is vital for people to begin understanding their environment,” Shiroma said.