The “A-ha Moment”: Philadelphia’s Discovery Center

Audubon Mid-Atlantic and Outward Bound host accessible nature education programs.

Damien Ruffner, Audubon Program Manager, holds up a male, ring-necked dove during a birdfeeder workshop. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Hidden behind pink blooming trees, low shrubbery and an intriguing, dark wooden façade, rests a tranquil lake in East Fairmount Park.

The view of The Discovery Center from across the lake. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

“My favorite thing to do is to start my field trips at the very bottom of the hill,” said Damien Ruffner, Program Manager for Audubon Mid-Atlantic, a non-profit that, along with Outward Bound, runs The Discovery Center. “Together, collectively, we come up that hill and turn that corner. And to just see their minds be blown by seeing a body of water like this inside Philadelphia really hammers it home.” 

Ruffner calls it the “A-ha moment.”

A bird seen through The Discovery Center’s gates. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

As the wind blew through the trees outside, Ruffner hosted a bird feeder workshop, one of many events held at the Center’s program spaces throughout the month. Using basic materials like small rolls of cardboard, popsicle sticks, string and markers for a pop of color, he demonstrated to local residents how to create their own feeders.

Spreading sunflower butter and an assortment of seeds over the top half of the cardboard roll, Ruffner then tied it to a branch in the pollinator garden where migratory birds of varying sizes and colors would come to peck eagerly at it.

Ruffner holds up an assortment of birdseed. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

One of the community participants, Strawberry Mansion resident Lacey Clark, gleefully created two bird feeders — one emblazoned with shining, golden hearts and polka dots. 

“It’s like a whole little world,” Clark said while looking out the windows at the serene expanse of water. “[The Discovery Center] is amazing because it educates us about where we live and how beautiful and blessed it is to live amongst this space.”

The aerial-teams challenge course run by Outward Bound. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The Discovery Center first opened its doors in September 2018. For decades prior, it was only the west basin, once used as a city water supply but abandoned and fenced off as the city’s population declined in the 1970’s. 

The entrance of The Discovery Center off of Reservoir Dr near Oxford St. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

“We used to run track around here for Strawberry Mansion [High School],” said Gail Gayle, a lifelong resident and center assistant. “Seeing people walk through the gate, the first thing I hear, ‘I ain’t never knew this place was here!’” 

Seeing that excitement is one of Gayle’s favorite parts of the job.

Clark and Gayle sitting together at The Discovery Center. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

In addition to educational workshops, The Discovery Center is home to a climbing wall, an aerial challenge course, a trail that encircles the lake, bird-watching observation decks, and other programs hosted by Audubon and Outward Bound.

“I’m here to stay and I’m going to take care of it,” Gayle said.

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