Dani’s Dreams: Club fosters love of nature in honor of former student

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Dani’s Dreams at Zion is called Dani’s Dreams Outdoor Education Center. The Sugar Creek Park location was developed in 2016. It is Dani’s Dreams Outdoor Education Trail.

NEW PALESTINE — Eleven-year-old Aaliyh Meyer grinned as she pointed out the milk jugs full of birdseed hanging from the trees behind Zion Lutheran School in New Palestine.

“We made those to feed the birds,” she said proudly, as she and two classmates showed off a nature trail behind the school one chilly afternoon last week.

The bird feeders hang along a walking path in the Dani’s Dreams Outdoor Education Center behind the school, where children learn to appreciate and care for nature just like Dani did.

Dani Griffin attended Zion Lutheran from the age of 4 to 14, but later moved to Texas and graduated from Texas A&M University.

She was awaiting her first teaching job when a reckless driver ran a stop sign and struck her car in 2006, ending her young life at the age of 23.

Her mother, Donna Griffin — a teacher’s aide and volunteer at Zion Lutheran — started the Dani Griffin Innovation in Education Memorial Fund at the school the following year, to provide hands-on science experiences for the 100-plus preschool through eighth grade students at Zion.

In 2009, she founded the school’s outdoor education center in her daughter’s memory.

“Dani was always a fan of nature and of being outside, and wanted to save the world from a young age. She had a sense of respect for the world around her,” recalled her mom, who thought developing a nature trail was the perfect way to honor her daughter’s spirit.

After a two-year break due to COVID, the Dani’s Dreams club is meeting after school once again.

On Friday, Jan. 20, club members gathered after school to rehearse a play celebrating monarch butterflies, a species which Dani loved.

The club is also selling monarch butterfly T-shirts and sweatshirts to raise money, which is used to maintain the outdoor learning lab. The shirt design was created by an eighth-grader at the school.

Griffin said that Dani’s Dreams has always been intended to be hands-on and student-run.

Dani’s nephew, Noah, is a devoted member of the club. Although he never met her, he shares his aunt’s love of nature and being outdoors.

“It feels cool to remember her this way,” said the 12-year-old, as he walked beneath a wooden pergola that leads out to the nature trail behind his school.

Over the years, students have helped cultivate the trail into the outdoor education center it is today, complete with various trees and plants and educational plaques along the way.

The center now has seven stations: a tree seedling nursery, a butterfly garden/wildflower area; an archaeological dig area; bird feeders and bird houses; Indiana native plants; a Dreaming Tree Hill gathering and creativity spot; and the Go Green Discovery Center, which focuses on environmental education with a community garden, interactive exhibits and experiments in solar and wind energy.

A second outdoor learning lab — Dani’s Dreams Outdoor Education Trail — is located in Sugar Creek Park in New Palestine.

Each learning center features kid-friendly activity and learning stations focusing on sustainability, wildlife, solar energy and native trees and plants. Students can learn from hands-on activities like digging for fossils, planting seeds, watching animals and feeding butterflies.

Both centers are open to all students in Hancock County, including scouts, preschools, churches and community groups.

The club’s website offers guests a chance to sign up for a guided tour, or gives directions on how to enjoy the learning labs and teach environmental lessons on their own.

Dani’s Dreams has continued to grow over the years, becoming a public charity in June 2016 and raising nearly $60,000 to support outdoor education in Hancock County.

It all started with an after school club, and a mother’s wish to honor her nature-loving daughter.

Eleven-year-old Emilee Neff said being a member of Dani’s Dreams has taught her to appreciate nature and not take it for granted. She thinks the more kids visit the outdoor learning labs, the more they can learn and teach others about the importance of caring for nature.

Eight-year-old Willow Fuller agreed. “I really like nature and gardening, and I really like that we get to help nature in this club,” she said Friday as club members gathered around a table in the church lobby after school, taking turns making buttons and waving around silk butterflies on sticks.

Later, they ducked down beneath a table and waved the butterflies in the air, reciting lines from a play that would help teach fellow students about how they can help “Save the Monarchs,” the club’s theme for this year, based on a children’s book Griffin wrote.

She knows the sight of young kids waving butterflies in the air, talking passionately about how to save an endangered species, would no doubt make her late daughter smile.

For more information on Dani’s Dreams and the outdoor learning labs, or to order a butterfly shirt or sweatshirt, visit DanisDreamsCorp.org.

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