In 1992... the Georgia Dome opened, sales of compact discs exceeded cassette tapes for the first time, The Real World premiered on MTV, and Lovett purchased hundreds of acres of cloud forest in Ecuador. Thirty years later, Lovett’s cloud forest—Siempre Verde—remains just as strong as it was in the early 90s (although we can’t say the same is true for the Georgia Dome, CDs, or The Real World.
Just like Lovett itself, Siempre Verde was a big idea in 1992. Its beginning can be traced to a conversation between then-Headmaster Dr. Jim Hendrix and Bob Braddy on a New York City sidewalk in 1991. Bob, head of the Upper School science department at the time, had been named a Tandy Technology Scholar and spent the prize money exploring Ecuador. He and his wife Connie spent three weeks in the country’s Intag Region. He dreamed of a reserve where Lovett students could learn in the field and could interact with nearby communities. Legend has it that Bob accosted Jim on a city sidewalk, sharing his idea for what could be a unique signature program. “I had a vision of establishing a research center for both kids and adults,” Bob recalls. “And Jim Hendrix said ‘do it.’”
Students and the community were quick to respond. Lovett’s Ecology Club raised $2,000 to help build a school in the neighboring town of Santa Rosa. A local pizza company donated pizzas for students to sell, raising more than $5,000 of the $7,500 needed to purchase the initial 500 acres of cloud forest. The remainder came from the recycling of newspaper and aluminum cans. The next summer, Braddy, Hendrix, and a group of students traveled to the site to collect the deed and explore the property.
It would take until 1996 for construction to begin on the first iteration of Siempre Verde’s lodge. The site was so remote at the time that all supplies were brought up the mountain on donkey or mule. Five men built the 2,600-square-foot structure with minimal tools and no electricity. In the years that followed, the research station was expanded, additional acreage was purchased, a partnership was started with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and the program grew in popularity.
Founded with the purpose of creating a protected preserve and establishing a research center to support tropical conservation education, Siempre Verde has hosted scores of students, educators, and researchers since its inception. It’s one of the best vehicles for understanding a culture, history, and ecology different from our own.
Visitors making the trek to Siempre Verde immerse themselves in 1,245 acres of misty, cool air and tropical, mountaintop vegetation. The reserve—Lovett’s “south campus” as Bob jokingly calls it—is home to hundreds of various bird, orchid, frog, and insect species. In fact, nearly four times the number of bird species have been documented in Siempre Verde compared to the entire state of Georgia, even though Siempre Verde would cover just 0.0032 percent of the state.
At Siempre Verde, students have the ultimate opportunity to learn by doing. It’s a prime example of Lovett’s mission to use hands-on teaching to educate students. “This was a place to teach kids what a cloud forest is in the ecological scheme of things and to take them there to do simple research and let them experience it themselves rather than through a textbook and photographs,” says Bob.
In its three decades of existence, Siempre Verde has offered American and Ecuadorian students the opportunity to learn through research and the exchange of ideas. It gives students and teachers unique experiences in cultural and ecological diversity that would be impossible to replicate closer to home. At Siempre Verde, botany students see more than 200 orchid species flourishing in the wild, arts students create mixed media portfolios that showcase Ecuador’s natural and cultural diversity, and Spanish students improve their communication skills by immersing themselves in the community.
As international trips were suspended during the pandemic, Lovett used the time to complete renovation projects at the reserve. Much of the lodge was rebuilt, including its roof, structural supports, and walls, which were original to its construction in 1996. Inside, walls were moved to enlarge the interior space and create a third dormitory. The new layout is approximately 500 square feet larger than the previous layout, and the dorm rooms can now comfortably accommodate up to 32 visitors. By using the existing footprint to renovate the lodge, it was a much more sustainable process and the renovations will extend the life of the lodge for many more years.
Though the towns and areas around Siempre Verde are getting busier, roads are being paved, traffic and population are increasing—much of Siempre Verde remains the same. And that’s okay for Alex Reynolds, Upper School science teacher and director of Siempre Verde. “I would hate to say a plan for the future is to not change Siempre Verde, but I think there’s an inherent beauty and nostalgia to the place,” he says. “Even after all of these years, everyone who has traveled there can all talk about a shared experience.”