As schools scrap fall field trips, focus turns to ‘Blandford 3.0’

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Uncertainties swirling around whether and how schools will restart in the fall are already leading to cuts at Blandford Nature Center.

“We already are hearing from some of the local school districts that we might as well not count on field trips this fall and perhaps even this spring, and so we’ve really had to rethink how we operate as an organization,” said Jason Meyer, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids nonprofit.

The pandemic hit as Blandford was gearing up for its busiest time of year. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her first executive order limiting gatherings a week before the nature center’s 50th Sugarbush Festival, which is a “huge revenue generator,” according to Meyer. Blandford canceled the event and closed all its facilities.

(A Blandford Nature Center sign announces the cancellation of the Sugarbush Festival.)

As school classrooms closed, students stopped coming to Blandford. About half of roughly 300 school field trips were canceled, according to the nature center’s CEO.

“Our busiest school field trip months are March, April and May. And so those are the months that we lost. And of course, again, that’s only counting what we’ve lost so far. That’s not projecting into the future. We’ll see even more losses as we move through the fall,” Meyer said.

Blandford was one of the first groups to also scrap summer camp. Health checks and guidelines posed a logistical challenge with no guarantees of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“We believe in science and as we watched the data early on, we saw that, that this wasn’t something that was going to end quickly. In fact, probably not even until the vaccine was available,” Meyer explained. “And so we decided the responsible thing to do this year was to lay low and see what the future brings.”

Between cancellations and lost admissions, Meyer says Blandford lost about $300,000 — about a third of its budget.

“But more importantly to us, that’s several thousand children that aren’t going to get that experience out in nature that we firmly believe every kid needs to have,” Meyer said.

(A toad hides in grass at Blandford Nature Center.)

He said declining urban green space and a more digitally focused society make it even more important.

“As kids spend more time on screens, we’re seeing that loss of a connection,” Meyer said. “You ask a kid today where a carrot comes from and the answer is ‘the store.’ They don’t know what the step before that is. And so if we lose our ties to the land, we’re going to be in trouble.

“If we’re not connecting to nature, we’re not connecting to really the thing that keeps us all alive,” he added.

(A deer walks through the foliage at Blandford Nature Center).

FEWER DOLLARS, MORE CUTS

Faced with less revenue, Blandford Nature Center had cut about half of its 40-person workforce, including education staff and some maintenance workers and administrators.

A Paycheck Protection Program loan of up to $350,000 allowed Blandford to bring back all staff in early May to focus on maintenance projects and creating virtual field trips. But it was a brief reprieve, ending last week.

“The first round of layoffs, we knew it was a temporary layoff situation. This is more of a permanent layoff situation because we don’t know when we’ll be able to bring folks back,” Meyer said.

He said the decision was necessary but devastating.

“To look at people and say, ‘You don’t have a job…’ These are people who are underpaid, they’re working a vast amount of hours to do something good for our community. And then at the end of the day, they have to go home and figure out what to do with their own expenses and their own families. And that’s what weighs on leaders of organizations,” he explained.

(A July 2020 image shows the sign greeting visitors to Blandford’s new natural area, The Highlands.)

Blandford is also delaying some projects, including building a pavilion at the site of the former Highlands Golf Club in Grand Rapids.

Still, Meyer says the nature center has survived hard times in the past 50 years and ill be here after the pandemic.

“We’ll be OK. We’ve been doing everything that we can over the past five years to grow our endowment and our financial reserves. We’ve been building new relationships in our community that will allow us eventually to reach deeper into sectors of the community that we haven’t reached before. We just need to think differently,” he added.

REOPENING UNDER A NEW NORMAL

Blandford Nature Center’s indoor facilities started welcoming guests again June 15 — more than two months after they closed because of the pandemic. This week, the organization restarted in-person programs, albeit on a smaller scale.

(A turtle greets visitors at the wildlife center at Blandford Nature Center.)

“We’re really excited to start getting folks back out through our programs,” said Meyer.

Blandford is stepping up facility cleaning, limiting people inside visitor and wildlife centers and temporarily reducing hours. Workers are wearing masks and all visitors are expected to as well.

(Visitors wear face masks as they view animals at Blandford Nature Center’s wildlife center).

“We are requiring people to wear masks indoors and we’re not afraid to ask people to leave if they’re not,” Meyer said.

REFOCUSING ON ‘BLANDFORD 3.0’

Meyer says while the nature center faces a lot of unknowns, one thing is certain: “Blandford 3.0” is going to look different coming out of the pandemic.

“We see that we have an incredible resource to offer from a health and wellness perspective. And so as we think about new programs or new ways to promote our property, you’re going to see a lot more come out of Blandford about the physical and mental (benefits),” Meyer said.

Blandford’s CEO says the pandemic is proving the importance of time outdoors for well-being. Since COVID-19 restrictions set in, traffic on Blandford’s trails have tripled, volunteers estimate.

(A July 2020 photo shows visitors heading to Blandford Nature Center’s trails.)

“Basically you can see the stress melt away as folks start to connect with (natural) things, breathing fresh air… really the benefits of being outdoors are just so expansive, I couldn’t sit here and list them all,” Meyer said.

At least 250 employees from Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital are taking advantage of those benefits through free yearlong memberships provided by Blandford.

(A July 2020 photo shows the tree canopy at Blandford Nature Center.)

“As we continue to go through the COVID pandemic, we recognize the incredible stress, both physical and mental, on our healthcare workers here in the community. And so as we wondered what we could do to give back to those heroes?” Meyer explained.

Meyer said Blandford is now reaching out to other health care providers with the membership offer.

“We hope at the end of the day that those folks that are giving it their all on that side of things can take a few moments with their families to come out to Blandford and get a little bit of respite,” he added.

(Bicyclists coast down a trail at Blandford Nature Center.)

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Community members can show their support for Blandford starting with donating or purchasing a membership.

“That’s huge, too. Knowing that the community is there to support us, keeps us going,” Meyer said.

Staffing cuts also mean more volunteers are needed.

“Whether it’s trail maintenance or helping out at the front desk, you know, as folks start to come back into the visitor center, helping behind the scenes, we have all sorts of volunteer opportunities,” he added.

If time and money are tight, Meyer said visiting Blandford and sharing your experience helps.

“Find your physical and mental health and well-being here,” he said, “because those are the stories and those are the connections to our community that will sustain us well into the future.”

(A July 2020 photo shows the sign greeting visitors to Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids.)

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