The Elachee Nature Science Center has fostered environmental education among adults and children, and championed conservation efforts to enrich the lives of Hall County citizens for 40 years.
Through its many public programs, camps, Nature Academy and preservation projects, Elachee continues to hold true to the Cherokee namesake — New Green Earth.
The center currently resides in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve in Gainesville as a part of the 6,000-acre upper Walnut Creek watershed. Elachee consists of 2,000 acres of perpetually conserved land.
Andrea Timpone, the president and CEO of Elachee, said one of the beautiful aspects of the land is that it will always remain green.
“There are no billboards, there are no buildings, it’s just the green entrance to Gainesville,” Timpone said. “Of all the things I’m most proud of, it’s the work we’ve done to conserve the land.”
Kim Marks, Elachee’s director of development and communications, said the biggest message for the community to know about the space is that if people don’t protect it, it won’t remain here for them to enjoy.
“If people are looking for a connection with nature, start here,” Marks said. “Explore what we have to offer because it is broader than just walking around and admiring things. It’s learning so that the next generation has something to learn about and protect as well.”
Elachee’s rich history
Timpone said Elachee came about through the vision of five women — Becky Geiger, Rosemary Johnson Dodd, Sissy Lawson, Ellen Odegaard and Julia Cromartie. The nonprofit became incorporated in 1979.
Timpone said the land and water source became officially protected in 1927 when the Johnson & Johnson company purchased a part of the Walnut Creek watershed to build the Chicopee Mill and Chicopee Village.
The land was later donated in the 1970s to the Gainesville Area Park Commission by Johnson & Johnson, after they closed the Chicopee Mill water filter plant.
In 1985, Timpone was hired as the nonprofit’s first staff educator. Back then she said Elachee didn’t have a building, just the Ed Dodd trail.
That changed in 1989 with the Hall County 1-cent local option sales tax, which raised funds to build the Elachee Nature Science Center. The building opened to the public in 1990.
Elachee’s school programs took off in 1986, serving students from Hall County schools.
What started with around 16,000 students visiting the center, has increased to 35,000 today.
Timpone said Peter Gordon, Elachee’s director of education, is mostly responsible for this growth.
Gordon joined the staff in 1992, and since then has strived to serve as many kids as logistically possible.
In the early '90s Gordon said the nonprofit released several dinosaur exhibits, which drew many schools from outside of Hall County.
“These robotic exhibits were great springboards to get schools in our door,” he said. “As our curriculum grew, we designed a lot of classes that met the standards that teachers were trying to teach in the classroom.”
During this time Elachee’s trails also began to expand, and today encompass 12 miles of hiking. One of these includes a barrier-free trail for mobility and vision-impaired visitors.
In 1998, the Aquatic Studies Center at Chicopee lake was erected, kicking off a floating classroom program in partnership with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
Timpone said 5,000 students go out and experience the Lake Lanier Aquatic Studies classroom every year.
“The whole idea is to get them outside as much as possible,” she said. “We literally have children that come off the buses that have never been in the woods before. Most of the kids we take on the boat that are from Gainesville don’t know there’s a lake here and have never been on a boat.”
During the early 2000s, Elachee took huge strides in its conservation efforts. The nonprofit became the legal trustee of the conservation easement, protecting from development over 1,900 acres in the Chicopee Woods Area Park.
In 2006, Elachee started a stream mitigation bank for its stream restoration, and launched a survey to map invasive plant species in the preserve.
Decades of environmental education
From its summer and spring camps, to its Elachee Nature Academy, the nonprofit fosters an appreciation for the natural world in young children.
Timpone said Elachee is on its sixth year of holding its preschool and third year since starting its kindergarten through first-grade classes. The nonprofit serves 40 students year-round in its Nature Academy.
Timpone said 50 percent of the students’ time at the academy is spent outdoors — rain or shine.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choices,” she said.
Melissa Reid, the director of schools, said the academy embraces time spent outdoors because of the positive impact it has on kids.
Instead of the teachers telling students about certain scientific concepts, they gain hands-on experience. Reid said the kids study trees throughout the entire year, and see how the leaves change during the different seasons. They also have their own garden, where they witness the stages of growth with plants.
Reid said the kids begin to naturally put ecology concepts together without the teachers grilling them with terms and verbal lessons.
Through gaining this type of experience, she finds the students develop a sense of independence. Instead of going to a teacher with problems, she said they first try and resolve it among their peers.
“The main point is them getting out in nature,” Reid said. “It doesn’t just teach them science, it teaches them conflict resolution, balance, personal space and so many different concepts. Our children, when they come inside and sit down, they give us their full attention because they know they have the time to get out and explore.”
Programs, exhibits and events
Throughout the year families flock to Elachee to participate in its many events including the Great Backyard Bird Count in February, Raptor Fest in March, Trillium Trek Trail Run and Walk in April, and Snake Day in September.
Kids aren’t the only ones who have fun at Elachee. The nonprofit provides myriad activities and programs for adults like its hiking trails, Science Night Series, Georgia Master Naturalist Series and art workshops.
Marks said the nonprofit’s newest art workshop involves nature sketching with a professional artist at Chicopee Lake. People can enroll for the workshop, which takes place in three different sessions starting March 1, through visiting www.elachee.org/lifelong-learning.
For those who have visited Elachee in the past couple of months, they may have noticed the ongoing construction.
Timpone said the nonprofit is currently reconstructing its large exhibit hall, which will soon display and explain the natural history of Chicopee Woods.
The center’s animal exhibit is also under construction. Timpone hopes to have most of it finished by the beginning of March.
The nonprofit is in the works of creating a new tree trail, which entails 10 tree identification signs along a balcony.
Because of parking issues around the nature center, Elachee is constructing a new parking lot with a play area.
Timpone said most of the nonprofit’s projects are inspired by its staff, who then take their ideas to the Elachee Board of Trustees. Rob Robinson currently chairs the board.
The people who make it happen
Without the efforts of the board, staff and volunteers working closely together, Timpone said Elachee wouldn’t be as successful with its mission.
Elachee’s team consists of administrative staff, nature academy teachers, educational program instructors and the 26-member Board of Trustees.
Many of the team, including Gordon and Timpone, have remained loyal to Elachee for over a decade.
“I’ve always had a passion for teaching and the outdoors, and I believe in hands-on outdoor education,” Timpone said. “I believe that people need to spend more time outdoors, and we make that happen for children and families.”
Judy Stock, manager of Elachee Nature Shop, has been employed at the nonprofit for 19 years. Stock said the center provides a serene environment and will always remain her favorite place to work.
Julia Johnson has volunteered once a week with the nonprofit’s trail crew for more than seven years. Johnson said for years she has loved the hiking the trails at Elachee, and decided to contribute to its upkeep when she retired.
She works on erosion control, extracting invasive species of plants, maintaining bridges and whatever else needs extra attention.
“I just like to be outside and I like the people,” she said. “Elachee just has such a great environment and feeling. It’s nice to come out once a week and do something.”
Funding the nonprofit
Like most nonprofits, Timpone said Elachee is no stranger to consistent financial challenges.
She said 75 percent of Elachee’s operating revenue includes earned income from its academy’s tuition, facility rentals, parking fees and school visits.
Donated income from fundraisers, grants and individuals takes up the other 25 percent of the nonprofit’s funding.
Marks, who coordinates the fundraising efforts, organizes Flights of Fancy. This is the nonprofit’s only fundraiser, which will take place for its 19th year on Saturday, April 27 in the Elachee Nature Science Center.
The event is hosted by the Elachee Board of Trustees, and provides a farm-to-table meal and silent auction.
This year, Marks said the silent auction will expand throughout the nature center, encouraging people to walk around and see what it has to offer.
Unlike organizations that have worthy missions to improve a somber or harsh reality, Marks said nothing about Elachee is sad.
“We have an opportunity and offer a place for people to unplug and reconnect to nature, whether through education or walking the hiking trails,” she said. “This nature center is nestled in one of the largest protected green spaces in Georgia and that’s very significant.”
People can find Elachee Nature Science Center at 2125 Elachee Drive in Gainesville.For more information about the nonprofit visit its website at www.elachee.org.