“The Texas Nature Project
Makes Its Home in Mason!”
Mason County News, 1 November 2006.
Texas Nature Project is a non-profit organization founded and operated
by educators. TNP was created to fill an important gap in the educational
process for traditional undergraduate college students. Founders, Dr.
Sherra Theisen and Jan Schultz have over thirty years of experience
in the field of higher education. Sherra has a PhD in Philosophy and
has taught at Rice, the University of Houston-Downtown, the University
of St. Thomas, and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Jan is a
graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and has worked as an administrator
at Southwestern University and the University of St. Thomas. Sherra
is the Chief Executive Officer for TNP and Jan is the Chief Operating
Jan were responsible for the development and implementation of a one-year living-learning
experience for first-year traditional students at the University of St. Thomas
in Houston. This program focused on the development of the whole person: mind,
body, and spirit. For four years, Dr. Theisen lived on-site with her students
and served not only as their teacher, but as their role model and mentor. The
program integrated theory and practice, values and life. Service played an
essential role in the success of the program. It became obvious to Sherra and
to Jan that it was the experiences outside of the classroom that most significantly
impacted the lives of their students. And, more specifically, it was those
experiences that afforded students opportunities to interact in nature.
of Sherra and Jan’s students had ever had the opportunity to interact
in nature. The majority of students were from urban areas, and many had grown
up in environments that did not allow for experiences in the outdoors: apartments,
condominiums, town homes, and high rises. Even more surprising, the few students
who had grown up in rural areas had never bothered to interact in nature in
a meaningful way. Students were content to spend their time in their rooms,
in isolation, working on their computers, and the many other electronic devices
that had become so important in their lives. Each complained, in his or her
own way, about their self-imposed isolation. They longed for a sense of community
and they longed to live lives of worth and dignity. The one-year, living-learning
experience was not only an answer to these longings for community and value,
it served to encourage a sense of wonder, awe, and stewardship among participants.
act of working in a garden, planting and tending flowers and watching them
grow proved to have a transforming effect on student lives. Hiking through
the woods, gazing at the night sky, and interacting with wildlife allowed students
to experience the sense of overwhelming joy and peace that come only through
interaction in nature. These experiences had other almost equally significant
effects on students. They encouraged connections between self and others, opened
new vistas for consideration, ignited ethical and moral reasoning, liberated
the imagination, nourished the soul, and helped students to understand that
the development of the heart, soul, and mind must be the critical components
to finding purpose and meaning in life.
certainly supports the need for just such a program for our young people. Studies
have consistently shown that our system of higher education has developed serious
flaws that have interfered with its ability to help our young achieve the depth
of critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and human compassion that are
so essential for living a life of worth, dignity, and meaning. By the 1990s
the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam and play had
shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in the 1970s. Today, average eight-year-olds
are better able to identify cartoon characters than native species, such as
mesquite trees and mockingbirds in their own communities.
our children have never experienced the wonder of nature play. They have never
known the awe of being in the midst of a meteor shower; they have never heard
the sound of an owl, or experienced the unfettered joy that comes with watching
a couple of raccoons at play.
Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, has compiled powerful
research on the impact of nature. This research shows that direct exposure
to nature is essential for healthy childhood development—physical, emotional,
intellectual, psychological, social and spiritual. This research also demonstrates
that nature is a potent therapy for depression, obesity, and attention deficit
disorder. Environment-based education has been proven to dramatically improve
standardized test scores and grade point averages and it stimulates the development
of creativity, humility, and skills in problem solving, critical thinking,
and decision making.
American ages forty and above, maintains a visual picture in their mind of
an important experience they had in nature, especially in solitude. For most
of these Americans, this memory will have some sort of spiritual significance.
Nature awakens us to the love and power of the Creator. It moves us beyond
self to others and makes it possible for us to understand that we are a part
of something bigger and greater than self. Nature nourishes the spirit. Our
young cannot be expected to be good stewards of the earth unless we allow them
the opportunity to share the experiences in nature that have brought joy and
inspiration to the many, many generations that have come before them.
Jan spent over a year searching for a site in the Texas Hill Country for their
non-profit. When they discovered the 100 acre North Point Ranch, here in Mason,
they immediately knew they had found the perfect site for their Center for
Nature and Eco-Justice Studies. While it was important to Sherra and Jan to
find a property rich and varied in topography, geology, climate, plant and
wildlife, it was at least equally important to them to locate their non-profit
in a place where their students would be able to experience a sense of true
community and history. Mason, with its warm appeal and its devotion to faith,
family, and friendship seemed to them to be the perfect location.
of Mason have been extremely welcoming to Sherra and Jan. The Texas Nature
Project had a Board meeting at their North Point Ranch in August and a number
of our city’s leaders attended and had the opportunity to meet Sherra,
Jan, and their full Board: Mayor Brent Hinckley and his wife Monica, City commissioner
Pat Reardon and his wife CJ, North Point neighbors Keith and Sue Kaan, Mason
County News Editor Gerry Gamel, and alternative builder Jim Wilson. County
Judge Jerry Bearden invited Sherra and Jan to meet with him in his office shortly
after they moved to Mason so that he could personally welcome them to Mason.
Jan was invited to speak to the Mason’s Lion Club in September. Shortly
after Jan’s presentation, Lion Ted Smith invited Sherra and Kan to tour
the Gene Ashby Ranch. Sherra and Jan have also been warmly received by every
other member of our Mason community and look forward to continuing to build
from various urban-area colleges and universities in Texas will have the opportunity
to apply for admission to Texas Nature Project. In order to qualify for admission,
students must have demonstrated a strong commitment to the values of service,
citizenship, stewardship, education, justice, diversity, tolerance, friendship,
and community. It is expected that thirty students will participate in this
for-credit educational experience each semester. Sherra will be overseeing
the academic component of this program and Jan will oversee the administrative
will participate in class five days a week. Classes will be taught by Sherra.
Sherra expects to have a number of guest speakers assisting her with class
instruction. It is extremely important to Sherra and Jan that their students
not only have the opportunity to learn the history of the Mason area, but that
they have the opportunity to hear Mason’s stories directly from the people
who have lived its history.
Jan also hope to make their North Point Ranch available to the people of Mason
for other educational opportunities. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other student
groups will be welcome to use the ranch for hiking and exploring. Sherra and
Jan are also available to assist the community with presentations on stewardship,
nature, values clarification and community building.
Board is currently composed of people from Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.
Board members have been selected to represent the various constituencies that
TNP will be serving: undergraduate students, parents, and educators. The TNP
Board hopes to appoint at least one new member to their Board from Mason within
the next year. If you are interested in applying for a position with the Board
or otherwise supporting Texas Nature Project, or would like to learn more about
our programs, please contact Dr. Sherra Theisen or Jan Shultz by telephone
at 325-347-5978 or by mail at PO Box 300, Mason, Texas 76856, or email at email@example.com
Quotes from students:
- “Dr. Theisen and Jan were the first people I met as an
undergraduate and they were also the ones who had the greatest
impact on me. What I learned from them affects me everyday, and
has shaped the person I have become.” Gina Rigano, Senior.
- “My experience with the living-learning community, has,
thus far, been the highlight of my college career. It taught me
to value service to others, the community I live in, and the natural
world around me. There is no doubt in my mind that Texas Nature
Project—and the wonderful women who run it—will give
future generations of students similar exiting opportunities for
personal growth and self-exploration.” Katherine Raley,
- “It has been through Dr. Theisen and Ms. Schultz’s
guidance and example that I have learned what it means to be just,
caring, and compassionate, assets I hope I will carry with me
when I become a physician.” Maria Hamzo, Senior.
- “When you work for Jan and Sherra you work with them,
and as you’ll soon find out, they work for you. Their mission,
dedicated to recovering tools that can make them nature sound
natural again, is as remarkable and rare as the kind of people
they are.” Curtis D’Costa, Graduate Student.
- “As a result of my experiences in the living-learning
community, I have been able to live a better, more purposeful
life. This experience has also engrained in me a mature devotion
for excellence that demands a commitment to Truth.” Lindsley
Quotes from Board Members:
- “Texas Nature Project will be offering our state’s undergraduate
students a uniquely meaningful learning experience. There is no other
such learning experience in the country and its focus on nature and
stewardship is one that our nation’s young sorely need. There
is nothing of greater importance to me than my faith. It is my since
belief that we cannot truly care for the Creator until we have learned
to care for His creation.” Dorita Hatchett, Administrator, University
of Houston, Vice President, TNP.
- “I am proud and humbled to be part of a project that offers
the potential to influence the lives of our young in such a meaningful
way. I have no doubt that TNP will have an enormously positive impact
on the lives of thousands of our state’s college students.” Dr.
Rose Signorello, Psychologist, University of St. Thomas, President,
- “Students who participate in TNP curriculum will not only
have the opportunity to experience the inspiration and solace that
comes through interaction in nature, they will gain the perspectives,
understanding, and skills required to find ways to protect and nurture
our planet and all its living beings for us, their generation, and
future generations.” Martha Atkins, Doctoral Candidate, Secretary,
- “Love is demanding: it demands that we be compassionate, intelligent,
reasonable and responsible, and that we change our self-destructive,
other-destructive, and world-destructive ways. All true education
is, at its heart, an act of love. I am so grateful that my vocation
and profession allow me to live my faith: ‘they will know us
by our love.’” Dr. Sherra Theisen, CEO, TNP.