As executive director Moran Henn stood on a wooden stool Thursday night surrounded by supporters of the Willow Bend Environmental Education Center during their annual fundraiser, she was getting ready to surprise a number of volunteers for their work at the center.
Henn wasn’t the only one in the room getting ready to deliver a surprise.
Jen Saunders, president of the BLE Flagstaff board, was hiding a four-foot-long check for $10,000 to give to support Willow Bend.
“Our goal for annual fundraising for Willow Bend is $5,000, and usually during our annual celebration at the end of the summer we bring in $3,000 of that goal,” Henn said. “We charge a fee to give presentations on environmental education in the schools and that fee covers the cost of staff to teach the program and the cost of materials used during the program.
“When we go into schools, either the teacher, the school or another partner pays for the cost of the program. We got to the point where we were over our capacity. We have more demand for staff to teach our programs than we have funds to pay and support programs.
“We use the money we raise to cover the cost of the free classes we give on the first Saturday of every month at Willow Bend, where we usually have more than 100 children show up. We also use donated funds to cover the costs of programs when a school or teacher can’t meet those costs. We never want to say no to someone.”
For Saunders, the decision to invest in the work that Willow Bend does in the community was an easy one.
“BLE is all about inspiring random acts of kindness in the community all year long. Willow Bend inspires people of all ages and backgrounds throughout the community and northern Arizona to be kind to the environment,” Saunders said. “As an organization we generally do small acts of kindness in the community throughout the year, but once a year we do one large donation that we feel will have a large impact on the community -- and $10,000 will have a huge reach here locally."
According to Henn, the unexpected windfall couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I was just blown away by the donation. It’s been a pretty tough two years fundraising as lots of government grants have dried up, so to see us recognized with that grant and to see us recognized locally by another organization was pretty amazing,” Henn said. “This is the year, after cuts to science funding, we realized the importance of science education and understanding the scientific process. We really want to be able to bring programs to all schools that want them.”
As Henn stood next to Saunders in the middle of the celebration, she said that she had no idea how large the donation was going to be.
“I honestly thought it would be for $500. I didn’t want to dream too big. A thousand dollars would have been amazing. When she turned the check around I thought I counted one zero too many and I had to look again," Henn said. "When I read the number, my mind went rushing to the immense world of opportunity that we could do with that money.
“When you have a small nonprofit, it doesn’t take much to do a lot. I want to truly thank this amazing organization and to commit to using these funds to make the Best Life Ever for the thousands of kids that we come into contact with every year."
Saunders echoed that sentiment, talking about BLE Flagstaff’s role in the community.
“Moving forward, BLE would like to continue to inspire others to share unexpected acts of kindness in random ways throughout the community," Saunders said. "Just being kind is enough to brighten someone’s day. “It’s because of all of the people in the community who support BLE that we can, in turn, support Willow Bend.”