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John Myers, executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center (ICNC) in Cedar Rapids, often contemplates on the initial intent that the founders had when starting the nonprofit.
“When you start something with no money and no staff and no land, you can't sit back and envision this,” Mr. Myers said, referring to the ever-expanding organization that ICNC is today. “But strip away the buildings, strip away the people, strip away the 500 acres of land that we have. We are creating connections for people, and we're getting people outside. And that's what their vision was to start with.”
This year, the nature center is celebrating its 50th year in operation as it continues its mission to “promote a sustainable future.”
ICNC, the first nature center in Iowa, was founded by B.B. Stamats and Jean O’Donnell in 1973. Its original location, a barn and 120 acres of land then known as Penningroth farm in Southeast Cedar Rapids, is still in use today. Although, the nonprofit’s impact has reached new heights, particularly in the last decade.
“When I came in, there was a really strong base of support, strong programs and mission already in place, but the community was thirsty for more,” Mr. Myers said, about starting as executive director in 2013. “They wanted more opportunity to come out here and participate and a lot of the infrastructure and our capacity was limited, based upon a variety of different things.”
In 2016, the Amazing Space was built.
This 12,000-square-foot building houses the nature center’s main offices and gathering spaces. It is host to the majority of the organization’s events and programs. In 2019, the building earned its Living Building Challenge Petal Certification, which recognizes its outstanding day-to-day sustainability.
Along with other factors, the Amazing Space is considered “net zero” for energy and water. On-site solar panels produce all of the energy needed by the building and great efforts have been made to conserve water used in its restrooms.
In addition, the surrounding landscape features only native plants that don’t require watering.
“We have a lot of different habitats,” said Jean Wiedenheft, who has been director of land stewardship at ICNC for 10 years, but who has been with the organization for more than 20. She started as a volunteer, “mulching the trails and helping to plant trees.”
Now, she works with her team and volunteers to maintain and preserve ICNC’s woodlands, trails, and Etzel Sugar Grove Farm, which was donated by the Etzel family in 2016 and further expanded the nature center’s sustainability programs.
“When you look at what the founders wanted, they wanted a safe place for kids to play in nature,” Ms. Wiedenheft said. “And that's what we're giving people … A safe place to play in nature, regardless of how old you are.”
For the first 47 years of the organization’s history, ICNC’s “bread and butter,” when it came to educational programming for school-aged children, was primarily summer camps and school field trips.
The Fresh Air Academy and Creekside Forest School are the latest educational programs launched at ICNC. Both were created with the purpose of fulfilling needs in the community.
The Fresh Air Academy was launched in 2020 as a way to “fill the gap” in daily education, at a time when many children were experiencing virtual learning from home. The program was “wildly successful,” according to Director of Education Kelli Kennon-Lane, and has continued as an after school program that encourages nature-based exploration and experiential learning for students in kindergarten through third grade.
The Creekside Forest School welcomed its first preschool class in 2021. The 3- and 4-year-olds are outdoors 30 to 70% of the time, learning in nature. This program is licensed through the Department of Health and Human Services to enroll up to 28 children at a time. There is a waitlist.
“Our most recent strategic plan is really focusing on wrapping around the entire family and going deeper rather than doing more,” Ms. Kennon-Lane said. “We realized that we have the opportunity to exponentially increase our impact if we provide a deeper quality experience.”
Ms. Kennon-Lane previously worked as a teacher and induction coach in the public school system. She has been ICNC’s director of education for six years and said the nature center’s educational programming is often based on feedback from community members.
“We have the ability to be really nimble and to be really intuitive to our community's needs,” Ms. Kennon-Lane said. “I see us as being very responsive to what our community needs of us and what the outdoor industry overall is demanding of us, in our region and in our nation.”
Many of ICNC’s staff members, including Ms. Wiedenheft and Ms. Kennon-Lane, began their involvement with the organization as volunteers. All of them agree that each of the nature center’s hundreds of volunteers play a vital role in the success of the nonprofit.
“We really value our volunteers and their time as much as we value donations,” said Sarah Halbrook, director of development and marketing. “Our volunteers do a lot of really great things here. They lead significant projects and they help us meet our mission.”
ICNC’s volunteer list has around 700 names on it. Of those, 450 are considered "active."
Roughly half of the organization’s operating budget is covered by contributions, grants and sponsorships. The other half of it is through program and event funding, Ms. Halbrook said.
Special events and fundraisers like the Maple Syrup Festival, Nature’s Noel and farm to table dinners bring thousands of visitors to ICNC each year.
This year, a 50th Celebration Event will be held Saturday, Oct. 14. It will feature live music by Dandelion Stompers, food and drinks. With this event, the nature center is hoping to remember the past, celebrate the future and enjoy the present.
“Our world is becoming increasingly more complex day after day,” Mr. Myers said. “But there's something about nature and the outdoors that causes people to reprioritize a lot of their lives. So, I think that our role over the next 50 years should be defined by creating connections. You know, that's really why we exist as an organization.”
This article was originally published in the CBJ's 2023 Giving Guide.