SALT LAKE CITY— St. Vincent de Paul School was visited on April 25 by a very unusual guest. Smokey Bear, the big, furry, fire-safety conscious mascot for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, visited the school’s 1st-grade classroom to congratulate Landon Ouellette, one of the winners of the 2017 Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl Poster Contest.
Ouellette was one of only five contest winners in Utah, each in a different grade, whose posters had captured Smokey’s iconic motto: “Only you can prevent wildfires!”
When Smokey Bear arrived in the classroom, the students were immediately enamored with him, said Denise Calderbank, 1st-grade teacher at St. Vincent de Paul. “They loved (him). It seemed to me like there was a rock star in the room!”
The students crowded around Smokey, eager to receive a big hug and touch his soft fur. The kids are still at that age where this kind of thing means the world to them, Calderbank said.
Meeting Smokey Bear was such a thrill for the kids because they had been learning a lot about him and his message about fire safety, Calderbank said. “One of the things we talk about a lot is what (the students) can do, even though they’re only 6 years old,” she said. “The kids really get excited about the things that they have control over.”
Calderbank jumped at the chance for her class to participate in the poster contest, she said, explaining that she learned of it through Connie MacKay, the chairperson of the National Garden Club, which co-sponsored the poster contest with the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. MacKay and a park ranger visited the classroom to teach kids about fire safety. They told the kids to never play with matches and to tell an adult if they ever find any, to be sure campfires are completely extinguished before leaving a campsite, and about general fire safety.
The students were invited to go home and make a poster about what they learned. Although participation in the contest was voluntary, most of the students entered posters, she said.
The kids “love to draw and color,” she said, so she wasn’t taken by surprise when most of her students ended up participating.
Another reason the kids were so eager to make posters about taking care of forests is that they genuinely care about the environment, Calderbank said. When she showed the kids images of the damage a forest fire can do and how humans often abuse and mistreat the world they live in, the kids were shocked, she said. “It made them so sad to see that this exists. … They’re still so small, they can’t understand it.”
The fact that so many 1st graders willingly participated in the contest is encouraging, MacKay said, because it means they are willingly involving themselves in trying to protect the environment. When the kids go back home and talk about fire safety with their parents, the parents learn more about it too, she said. The contest’s goals are to raise awareness for environmental care and to protect children from endangering themselves with fire, she said.
Ouellette’s poster deserved 1st place among all the other 1st graders in Utah because the message about fire safety in his poster made the motto “Only you can prevent wildfires” shine through, she said.
Ouellette’s poster has been entered in the national contest, where the grand prize is a trip for four to Washington DC.
The St. Vincent de Paul students are planning to participate in the contest again in 2nd grade, and are preparing to learn even more about environmental care and safety for next year’s contest, Calderbank said.