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Willow Bend Environmental Education Center, Flagstaff’s only full-time environmental education center, will have much to celebrate as it enters its 40th year of operation after being recognized as the Arizona Daily Sun’s Organization of the Year.

Willow Bend received overwhelming nominations for the award in response to its community-wide programs, which provide the knowledge and experience needed to transform students, longtime residents and visitors into responsible environmental stewards.

“We’re really excited and honored to have been nominated, and then to have been awarded,” said Moran Henn, Executive Director. “It’s a great kick-start to our 40th year anniversary celebration and it really just shows that the work we do and the service we provide is needed and appreciated in Flagstaff.”

Willow Bend’s 40-year success is largely due to the team that sustains it, a group of hundreds of dedicated, enthusiastic individuals of all ages, backgrounds and professions, Henn said.

“Willow bend is really a team effort,” she said. “Some people have been involved with Willow Bend for 40 years and some just for a couple hours, but all of those people are important and all of them make it possible for us to do what we do with very limited resources.”

This year, Willow Bend reached 18,282 individuals with its hands-on activities, experiments and exhibitions ranging from Picture Canyon field trips for local third graders to summertime geology tours of the downtown area. Staff and volunteers delivered hundreds of instructional programs specifically tailored to suit each one’s needs while also working to maintain the Willow Bend property on East Sawmill Road.

The organization’s origins date back to 1975, when Jim David, a biology teacher at Flagstaff Middle School, wanted to restore a nearby portion of the Rio de Flag to create an outdoor classroom for his students. With the help of Jim Alam, district conservationist for the Soil Conservation Service, the Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCD) and other community partners, the idea was expanded and Willow Bend became the first NRCD-sponsored environmental education program in Arizona. Until 2002, it was called the Resource Center for Environmental Education (RCEE).

Willow Bend’s current facility, whose cornerstone was set in 2001, is a certified sustainable building constructed using the principles of passive solar design: tightness, insulation, southern orientation, heat storage and distribution, and controlled ventilation. These characteristics allow the structure to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, reducing the need for air conditioners and heaters. The center also features low water native gardens, energy star office equipment and energy-efficient lighting. It also collects rainwater and composts.

“We play a really critical role in the community because no one else does this,” said Michele James, board member.

Leading up to its 2019 anniversary, the team has been reviewing all programs for adjustments and enhancements, Henn said. Looking at 2018 alone, the vast number and diversity of services provided could make the review process a lengthy one.

On the property, creation of a new monarch butterfly way station, stabilization of a formerly hazardous slope and updates to existing gardens were completed. There are currently six gardens available for public enjoyment: the hummingbird, lizard, forest, pond and wetland, wildflower and native edibles and medicinal gardens.

“Willow Bend has enriched the lives of our community and the surrounding area and reinforces the beauty that surrounds us,” Mary McKell, board member, wrote of the gardens in her nomination letter.

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School and community program topics this year included zero waste and recycling, habitat monitoring, bald eagle conservation and ecology, water ethics, hiking etiquette and safety, sustainable homes and renewable energy. Willow Bend representatives visited students of all ages to present these messages and their accompanying activities.

Susan Lamb, garden coordinator, thanked the community for being incredibly supportive of Willow Bend’s program expansion; recently, it has been redistributing resources to develop new strengths.

These programs make a substantial difference in local education by encouraging the development of future citizens, wrote Whitney Tapia, Northern Arizona University assistant professor of practice and former Flagstaff Unified School District elementary school teacher.

“With the stifling standardization we have seen in education, Willow Bend has remained a pillar of genuine learning for students and educators,” she said.

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To make such learning possible, the team puts in an unparalleled amount of work every day with its signature positivity and enthusiasm for the never-ending opportunities the center receives.

Longtime volunteer Bob Baer said, “It’s very fun to volunteer here. What’s really fun is all the people we meet who love Willow Bend. It’s really a community heart space.”

Sara Day, another volunteer, added that the team is excited to do even more for the community in the coming year.

Staff members like Henn shared similar sentiments about their work.

“I’ve always had a passion for education and especially environmental education and when I saw the job description, I just knew that I had to apply,” she said. “It’s been four years and every day I feel really lucky to come to work and I feel really honored to provide these services to the community.”

The organization’s mission remains as important today as it was decades ago, when it was just an idea for an outdoor classroom.

Holly Taylor, who served on Willow Bend’s board for six years, wrote, “In a time of concern about climate change and its environmental impact, it seems most appropriate to recognize an organization for which the total focus is how to act sustainably and effectively in the face of these threats.”

Willow Bend is currently planning its 40-year celebration. For more information about the center and its programs, visit www.willowbendcenter.org.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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