By Emma Castleberry
The child of a botanist and an elementary school teacher, Steve O’Neil grew up chasing lizards and snakes across the beaches and mountains of North Carolina. “My parents taught me that curiosity was a good thing,” he says. “They let me be inquisitive, explore, get dirty and let curiosity be my guide. That early curiosity led me into the forests and fields where I discovered the natural world and all the amazing things contained within it.”
This early fascination with nature led O’Neil to a string of wildlife and outdoor-oriented jobs, including positions at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Flat Rock Nature Center, Chimney Rock State Park and Hammocks Beach State Park. In 2007, O’Neil began work at Earthshine Discovery Center in Lake Toxaway, where the idea for Earthshine Nature Programs (ENP) was born. “While both organizations have similar names, we are separate business entities,” says O’Neil. In 2012, O’Neil left Earthshine Discovery Center to work as an environmental sciences teacher at Trails Momentum and Trails Carolina, adventure-based wilderness therapy programs for young adults, while simultaneously operating ENP.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, ENP is headquartered on the campus of Trails Momentum, a 500-acre mountaintop property in Western North Carolina. As ENP’s executive director, O’Neil serves the students at both Trails Carolina and Trails Momentum as well as outside visitors (by appointment only). “While both my Trails classes and ENP outreach programming are nontraditional, my first and strongest rule is that all material I present in class must be based on peer-reviewed, scientific fact,” says O’Neil.
ENP travels to local and regional homes, schools, camps and special events with its unique, environmentally themed outreach programming. Education at ENP is heavily experiential and hands-on, with most programming focusing on misunderstood wildlife and the promotion of renewable energy and electric vehicle (EV) adoption.
A licensed North Carolina wildlife rehabilitator, O’Neil has collected a menagerie of misunderstood animals, mostly former pets or injured wildlife that can’t be released or rehomed. ENP programs provide students with the opportunity to meet snakes, turtles, tortoises, opossums and hellbender salamanders and learn about wildlife conservation, animal adaptations and the human connection to misunderstood creatures. “I see amazing connections every day between our students and our animals,” says O’Neil, “connections that they will hopefully carry with them throughout their lives.”
The energy programs provided by ENP examine the use and abuse of energy in all its forms. “We look at how our daily food, electricity and transportation choices impact all of us,” says O’Neil. “We discuss ways we can all work to be better stewards of our earth through more informed decision making, as well as cleaner personal energy choices.” In the “Electric Vehicles 101” program, O’Neil drives his fully-electric Nissan Leaf outreach vehicle to your location, explains and demonstrates its features and takes participants on test rides and drives. Students will also have a chance to learn about the Leaf’s renewable energy power source: a photovoltaic solar array that was installed on the Trails Momentum campus last year.
The solar array is a hard-earned piece of technology central to O’Neil’s teaching and operation both as a Trails teacher and director of ENP. Generous donations from various individuals and organizations, including the Black Bear Solar Institute, made the solar array a reality. “Steve has a special talent for drawing people of all ages into his nature and environmental programs and infecting them with his passion for the natural environment and all of its inhabitants,” says Bob Harris, president of Black Bear Solar Institute. “He lives what he teaches, so people recognize the genuineness and authenticity of his message.” Volunteer Jim Hardy helped with the installation of the solar array and also contributes to other realms of ENP, including the electric vehicle outreach program and wildlife outreach programs. “Steve is very creative and is constantly thinking of new ways to expand his students’ interest in what he teaches,” says Hardy. “He is always raising their awareness of the natural world and the ways we can respond to climate change and protect and enhance our environment.”
O’Neil’s ultimate goal with ENP is to connect people with the wonders of nature, wildlife and wild places and protect our shared environment through the tools, methods and findings of science. “In our fast-paced, consumer-driven world, wildlife are often forgotten,” he says. “We work to connect people with those who do not have a voice and to help others find a lost curiosity, the curiosity they once had when they were younger. We work to show everyone that we are all connected as a part of this fragile thing called life on Earth.”
For more information about ENP or to register for programs, visit earthshinenature.com. To donate to ENP, visit gofundme.com/enpsolartrails.