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Outdoor classroom to honor Stamford animal lover

January 2, 2019

STAMFORD — Eric Spiller was more than just an animal lover: animals loved him.

Baby squirrels and seagulls allowed him to pick them up. He rescued racoons from drowning in the pool, nursed an injured cardinal back to health and warmed up a cat previously labeled “unadoptable” when working at PAWS in Norwalk. Even the family cat followed him around like a dog, climbing up to the top bunk where Spiller slept in the room he shared with his brother.

“Animals were attracted to him,” said Eric’s mother, Jane Spiller. “He was just a normal kid, but he always seemed to like nature and animals.”

The Stamford native’s love for animals rubbed off on his young neighbors for whom he often babysat. His truck parked in the driveway when he came home from working at his father’s landscaping business each day became the cue for the children next door to ring the doorbell to see if Eric could come and play. With him, they dug up worms, hunted for snakes and played tag.

When Spiller died suddenly last October at age 28, his neighbors, who his parents described as a “second family,” wanted to do something in his memory.

The Lapine family reached out to Mill River Collaborative and learned of their plans to create an outdoor classroom for the park for Stamford students to learn about nature firsthand. They became interested in helping bring the idea to fruition in Eric Spiller’s honor.

“We all can’t stop thinking about the possibility of seeing kids learning about animals and nature in Eric Spiller’s Outdoor Classroom,” Noah Lapine wrote on the GoFundMe page for the classroom. “It seems like the perfect way to memorialize Eric and give us all a place to go to remember him: outside, in the middle of his hometown, giving children a place to learn and explore.”

The outdoor classroom was unfunded, so the Lapines raised money and named it in Eric Spiller’s honor. Eric Spiller’s Outdoor Classroom will cost $200,000 to build with the first $5,000 contributed by the Lapine family.

“It’s such an honor, a legacy,” said Eric Spiller’s father, Jim. “I don’t think there’s any words to describe what it’d mean to us to just have his name on it. When (Noah) brought it to us, we were speechless.”

According to Dudley Williams, president and CEO of the Mill River Collaborative, an exact location for the outdoor classroom has not been decided, but the goal is to make it accessible for all students.

“One of the things we’ve always wanted to do is have an environmental education venue for students,” Williams said. “Putting this classroom in place is another way to help make that happen. Anytime we can expand the opportunities for students to interact with the environment on a regular basis, it increases their appreciation for the natural environment that’s around them.”

The Spillers, who have two older sons, have a family history of education with Jane Spiller being a special education teacher at Stamford High School. The classroom would honor this tradition and Eric’s love of animals.

“To me, the emphasis is not on us,” Jane Spiller said. “It’s not on grieving. It’s about nature, wildlife and public education. To me, that’s the nice part...I would like to see it come to fruition. It’s a great idea. I work with kids who sometimes haven’t even had contact with domestic animals...(The classroom) is about combining urban life with nature.”

erin.kayata@stamfordadvocate.com; (203) 964-2265; @erin_kayata

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