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Back to nature

Blandford Nature Center’s new director is looking to blaze new trails to become a better resource for the community.

By Alexandra Fluegel
Photography by Johnny Quirin

The landscape of Blandford Nature Center hasn’t changed much in its 53-year history. The 143 acres of dense woods and farmland are still filled with ponds, streams and wildflowers, and the resident wildlife still roam freely on the grounds. Yet in the past few years, the organization has undergone major changes and now welcomes a new role as an independent nonprofit.

Describing Blandford as a “jewel of Grand Rapids,” new director Annoesjka Steinman plans to find new revenue sources and enhance community awareness that Blandford is now a charitable organization. “We are in charge of our destiny now,” she said. “We can blaze new trails to become a better resource for the community and fill a niche as the ultimate place for outdoor educational fun.”

When Mary Jane Dockeray founded Blandford in 1968, she knew what a great resource it could be. As a child, she played on the land, then known as Collins’ Woods. Later, as a nature lecturer for the Grand Rapids Public Museum, she took students there on field trips. She still serves as a project coordinator and lecturer.

Located two blocks north of bustling Leonard Street on the city’s northwest side, Blandford’s unique urban location makes its wealth of resources easily accessible to the community.

The nature center began with 10 acres donated to the city of Grand Rapids by Victor Blandford. Additional grants and private donations funded the eventual acquisition of another 133 acres that make up the center that is home to miles of walking trails, a wildlife rescue and community gardens. Blandford School, a sixth-grade program of Grand Rapids Public Schools, offers students the unique educational experience of using the outdoors as a classroom.

GRPS began operating Blandford in 2004 when the nature center became too costly for the city to run. When the schools faced a budget crisis and the center was threatened with closing, the administrative board decided on a merger. In 2007, Blandford merged with Mixed Greens, a local nonprofit organization that helped plant and facilitate gardens in local schools.

Since then, Blandford has undergone changes in leadership. The founder of Mixed Greens, Lisa Rose Starner, served as director of Blandford/Mixed Greens for about a year. Bert Bleke, Blandford’s administrative board president and retired GRPS superintendent, served as acting director until September 2009, when Steinman was chosen as the new executive director.

“The board was impressed with Annoesjka’s experience at forming a vision for a nonprofit organization, and then working effectively in a community to make that vision a reality,” Bleke said.

 

Students from C.A. Frost Elementary School wait as caretaker Mark Rankin hands out drills for maple tree tapping.

Steinman’s first step as director was to relegate Mixed Greens to an educational program within Blandford. The students now use plots of land there for their gardens, which Steinman said is more sustainable because there is staff to tend the gardens when school is not in session. The change also brought more visibility to the Blandford name.

In February, the board approved a new strategic plan aimed at making Blandford a more prominent feature of the Grand Rapids landscape. “We want to get people out here to see what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Dockeray said. “We want people to know we’re alive and well, and that they are a part of what goes on here.”

And there’s plenty going on.

Blandford’s Community Garden has always drawn in families from around the area looking to spend quality time tending a garden. This year Blandford has doubled the amount of plots available for rent with the aim of drawing in other members from the community. Dockeray called the gardens a great resource for apartment- and condominium-dwellers who don’t have the space to plant their own gardens.

Another top priority is Blandford Farm. Steinman wants to expand the area of the half-acre farm and introduce new crops to create a unique community asset. In the past, Blandford Farm served as an educational tool for area students to learn about where food comes from. Steinman sees it as an opportunity to create a small, community-supported agriculture that could employ inner-city youth in the summer and provide food to local food banks.

“We’re evaluating it, and we’re currently working with Aquinas College students to come up with a business plan. We see a lot of potential with the sustainability around food as a focus of where Blandford intends to go,” Steinman said.

Blandford is also launching a new logo and a new membership structure, but it is the new events that they hope will draw the most attention. Currently, Blandford hosts three main festivals: Fall Harvest, Homestead Holidays and Sugarbush, the annual maple syrup-making festival. Adding new events would attract a wider range of visitors and allow people to become familiar with what Blandford has to offer.

“We’re looking for people who have an interest in the outdoors and all the things we do out here to come and be part of us,” said Dockeray. As a nonprofit, volunteers are essential to the sustainability of the organization. They help maintain the grounds and buildings, and lend a hand during events and programs. They also serve as Blandford’s public voice, said Steinman, which makes recruiting new volunteers another area of focus.

Blandford, which is still undergoing financial difficulties, needs more volunteers to spread the word about the center’s nonprofit status.

“We are looking to diversify our revenue sources among program fees, memberships, sponsorships, underwriting, grants, gifts and retail sales,” said Steinman. Currently, the program fees Blandford charges schools that use its educational resources offset one fifth of its operating costs. The rest of the costs are funded by grants and private donations.

Dockeray said the community always has supported Blandford “and it needs to continue to do so.”

The switch to a nonprofit has been a good one, said Steinman. “This allows us to fulfill our mission of changing lives through fun and engaging learning experiences in the natural world.” GR

Alexandra Fluegel is a Gemini intern and a student at Grand Valley State University.

   
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