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'We can make it work': The legacy of Elachee's Peter Gordon
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After 29 years of working at Elachee Nature Science Center, Peter Gordon, the nonprofit's education director, has decided to retire at the end of December 2020. Photo courtesy Elachee Nature Science Center

Most who have worked alongside Peter Gordon, education director of Elachee Nature Science Center, are familiar with the phrase, “We can make it work.”

“That’s a Peter Gordon direct quote,” said Andrea Timpone, executive director of Elachee. “And he usually could, whether it was reining in volunteers or developing programs.”

After 29 years of working at Elachee, Gordon has decided to retire at the end of December. 

RK Whitehead, who has been actively involved with the nonprofit since 2001, said over the past two decades he has watched Gordon grow the organization’s educational influence. 

“What’s truly amazing is you think of the number of children whose nature education has been influenced by his work,” he said. “That’s a true lasting legacy.”

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When Gordon joined Elachee’s team in the early ‘90s, Timpone said the nonprofit conducted some education programs with schools on a small basis, serving less than 10,000 students a year in Gainesville and Hall County schools systems. Timpone said today Elachee reaches 30 school systems in Georgia and more than three times the students of the ‘90s. 

“One of the great things I attribute to Peter is his ability and willingness to think outside the box and his ‘we can do it’ attitude to grow our education program to the point of serving over 30,000 students in a year,” she said.

In addition to expanding the organization’s roots with field trips and classroom outreach programs, Timpone said Gordon oversaw the beginnings of Elachee Nature Academy six years ago. The school is accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and currently teaches preschool, kindergarten and first grade. Next school year, the academy will offer a second and third grade program.

Timpone said she also credits Gordon with his ability to expand nature education beyond schools and into the community. She said he has coordinated many adult-centered programs, like science nights, bird watching hikes, Snake Day and the Georgia Master Naturalist series.

Whitehead agreed, noting that Gordon has a statewide reputation of “being a fantastic educator.”

“He’s been in the background for all these years,” he said. “Andrea has been the leader of Elachee, but Elachee would not be the organization it is today if it wasn’t for Peter.”

Gordon said he was hired on at Elachee in 1992 as its exhibit coordinator, then became its education director around three years later. The longtime educator said the nonprofit’s accelerated growth over the past few decades stems from the staff’s opportunistic nature. 

One of those moments took place during a hike with Timpone and a few others in the woods surrounding the nature center in 1995. Gordon said they happened upon Chicopee Lake, which was being used as a dumping site for shingles, old mattresses and trash. 

“It was a mess down there, but you could see the potential for what it could be,” Gordon said. 

After cleaning the lake, the outdoor classroom slowly came to life. Gordon said the nonprofit started a pond program for kids, which led to a grant that funded construction for a dock, boardwalk and parking area.

“We’ve said yes to as many opportunities as we could,” he said. “We found ways that we could improve ourselves, and we took advantage of them and fortunately got support from the community.”

Gordon said his greatest pleasure at Elachee involves working with Timpone and Elachee’s staff, volunteers, board members and visitors. 

“We’ve got naturalists that came through our doors 20 years ago and are still working with us, and others who came through for a short time, but had such an impact on what we’ve done and how we’ve grown,” he said. “It’s a bittersweet thing.”

Gordon said he felt like the end of 2020 was the right time to retire, and decided to embrace the change.

“I think working at a nature center for me, I feel like your life follows those same pulses,” Gordon said. “ I think you can’t work at a nature center for as long as I have to not be affected by what’s happened around you. Seeing the natural world come and go, and hibernate and reflourish, and be born and die, you see your whole life play out in that. This (retirement) is just a part of the process.”

In March 2021, Timpone will also retire. She said so far, Elachee has received great applications for her position from all over the country. Timpone said she intends to let the new executive director hire an education director to take Gordon’s place. 

“We’re opening the way for new ideas, new staff and Elachee 2.0,” Timpone said. “We’ll see where Elachee goes. I’m excited for the future.”

Like Timpone and Gordon, Whitehead said he feels confident in Elachee’s metamorphosis.

“Organizations either grow, adapt and change, or they become stagnant and slowly wither,” Whitehead said. “I think both Andrea and Peter have done a fantastic job of planting the seed for Elachee to grow and do things we can’t even imagine. The reason people are successful is because they’ve stood on the shoulder of giants. What Elachee has grown to, and much of what will become, is because of their work.”

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