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Elachee plants the seed for science
Nature center celebrates 30 years
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Visitors pet Buttercup, a 10-year-old albino Burmese python, Saturday at the Elachee Nature Science Center during Snake Day. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Thirty years ago, a "new, green earth" was cultivated in Gainesville.

Elachee Nature Science Center, dedicated to environmental education and getting children outdoors, opened its first office in 1979 in downtown Gainesville.

Since then, it has become the trustee of the largest piece of protected green space in the county and the first organization of its kind in the Southeast to receive accreditation by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges.

The organization, named with a Cherokee word meaning "new, green earth," was the brainchild of a group of local people who loved the outdoors, said Andrea Timpone, Elachee’s president and chief executive officer.

The group met weekly until it could narrow down a focus for the center — nature and science education — and get the organization off the ground.

"It was an exciting time, and it was done almost blindly to how big an idea this is and how much effort it was going to take," said Judge John Girardeau, the first president of Elachee. "... We started off with, of course, no money, no recognition, no staff, no facility, no assets, no anything. It was just an idea. And look where it is today.

"A lot of people have done a lot of work, a lot of hard work."

Timpone, who was the first Elachee staff member hired in 1985, said its early days included summer camps, small-scale school programs and weekend hikes that were the first steps to accomplishing the center’s main goals.

"Depending on who you talk to you will get a different idea of what Elachee was formed for originally," Timpone said. "It was a conglomeration of ideas, everything from an art museum to an environmental center to including some historical things and it evolved, probably in the first five years, into specifically targeting environmental education and getting children in the out of doors."

Over the years, the organization grew from serving approximately 100 summer day campers a year to nearly 700 this year. Elachee now holds contracts with local school systems and municipalities to provide education programs on subjects like rain garden construction and composting.

Last school year, the organization served almost 33,000 students and approximately 60,000 people visited the buildings or used the trails at the organization’s Chicopee Woods center. Overall, half a million students have benefitted from the center in the last 30 years.

Elachee has grown to incorporate a hands-on Lake Lanier aquatic study program that teaches approximately 3,000 students a year about Lake Lanier’s watershed. Through a partnership with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeepers, Elachee uses a pontoon boat to take students out to test the water’s turbidity (the sediment and other particles it contains), said Lavon Callahan, director of development and communications for Elachee.

Today, most of Elachee’s funding comes from income from program fees and local government contracts.

"Those contracts are renewable annually, so we never know until the (governments’) fiscal year begins whether we’re going to get it or not," Callahan said. "So that’s always interesting for us."

The center’s plan for future programs depends mostly on those contracts, but the uncertain economy is a threat.

"It’s hard to do a strategic plan right now with things as uncertain as they are, but we are always looking to expand our educational opportunities for students as well as the community," Timpone said.

Another 35 percent of the organization’s funding comes from donations and fundraisers. Elachee’s annual fundraising event is set for Saturday.

Callahan said the event will help offset the need to raise fees to keep Elachee operating.

"It is critical for that," she said.

Girardeau, who stepped back from his Elachee involvement when he became a judge, plans to re-involve himself with the organization soon. He plans to attend Elachee’s Safari benefit dinner and auction Saturday to help further what he says has been the organization’s biggest accomplishment.

"I think the biggest contribution that it’s made has just been its wonderful educational program for the school children and our community and the surrounding communities. I think that’s just a huge contribution," Girardeau said.

"My hopes is that it will continue on the path that its been on and continue to make the educational contributions that it has made. I would hope that we can even expand the efforts into the community as a whole on environmental issues."

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