Audubon volunteers keep Pomfret Center vibrant

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Pomfret - posted Mon., Jun. 3, 2013
Volunteer Fran Baranski leads a tracking hike on Audubon property in January. Photos by D. Coffey.
Volunteer Fran Baranski leads a tracking hike on Audubon property in January. Photos by D. Coffey.

When Fran Baranski retired from his state surveyor job, he stayed active by volunteering for the Audubon Society. He'd always loved being outdoors. When he was young, his mother instilled a sense of wonder at the natural world. It's stayed with him into his retirement years. He has translated that sense of wonder and appreciation for nature into several key volunteer slots at Audubon.

As a Master Naturalist, he has led regular walks on Audubon and Wyndham Land Trust properties. He started a nature photography group there. He has served on the Building Committee for the new center, and is on the Education and Trails Committees. Currently he is working on creating a field guide specific to the Audubon's Pomfret Center.

Audubon's Northeast Corner Director Sarah Heminway calls him a treasure. “He's been volunteering for over 15 years,” she said. “He's a fantastic tracker and a great nature photographer. He's helped with the Master Naturalist program which is in its second year. He's been a joy to work with. And he's led lots of walks,” she said.

In 15 years, Baranski has led one Thursday morning walk a week, one Sunday afternoon walk a month, and other more extensive tracking hikes as opportunity allowed. It adds up to nearly 1,000 walks altogether. “It's been a good fit,” Baranski said. “I've spent my whole life outdoors. I have no formal training, but I've learned so much that I'm willing to pass that along to anyone who is willing to go with me.”

Tracking and animal science is his specialty, but Baranski gets excited about a lot of things, whether its bird or mammal activity or flowers and plants. He's seen the tracks of every animal that could possibly be living in the area, including mountain lion, bear and moose. And the field guide he envisions will encompass as much information about an entry on one page as possible. If it's a bird, he wants the entry to include spring and fall plumage, photos of nests, eggs, fledglings. If it's a flower, he wants photos of the plant in spring, summer, fall and winter, including descriptions of buds and flowers. “You can't find field guides with everything on one page,” he said.

Heminway counts on a small army of volunteers at the Pomfret Center to answer telephones, do administrative work, man booths at area fairs, and help with the nature gift shop, among other things. Retired elementary school teacher Sandy Groom leads an after school nature club for kids in kindergarten through second grade. The opportunity grew from a friendship that developed between Groom and Heminway. “We sang together in a choir,” Groom said. “She picked up on my interests.”

One thing Groom missed when she retired was reading stories to children. Now she incorporates story time into her nature programs. Then the kids head outside. Groom's favorite times are what she call's “aha moments,” when kids understand the lessons she tries to teach. Once she overheard a little boy say, “I never knew that being in the woods could be so much fun.”

Underneath it all is her interest in conservation and environmental education. In the '70s she and her students wrote letters to government officials in support of environmental protection for Bald Eagles. They were endangered at the time. “It's not impossible for a child to ask, 'Could that be an eagle?' and we can say, “Yes!' That particular animal has come back. Groups like Audubon have taught people to appreciate various species and that each is important.”

Heminway calls Groom a phenomenal teacher. “I've learned a tremendous amount from her in terms of teaching techniques and her enthusiasm for getting kids eager about learning,” she said.

“Definitely go to the center,” Baranski urges potential volunteers. “Just get involved. It will grow from there.” 

Groom agreed. “Sarah is good at seeing what people are good at, what they are comfortable with, and fitting talents to opportunities,” she said. “Audubon has a great diversity of opportunities.”

For more information go to or call 860-928-4948.

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