Thanks to the commitment by Bellevue business leader Robert J. Holmes to helping kids experience the outdoors and to leaders of the Dean Witter Foundation and its support of environmental education programs, the survival of NatureBridge is one of the hero stories of 2020.
Throughout 2019, as in previous years, the NatureBridge campuses in various national parks were alive with activity with up to 35,000 students spending their days exploring the parks, engaging in scientific inquiry, and discovering their connection with nature.
Then came the pandemic and, like so many organizations and businesses, NatureBridge had to make the difficult decision to suspend in-person programming, threatening its ability to deliver on its mission and even threatening its survival after 49 years.
Holmes, CEO of The Holmes Group (THG) and a NatureBridge board member for whom the call of the wild has been a lifetime personal counterpoint to his role as a developer of both real estate and resort projects across North America, saw the closure as a "crisis."
So Holmes, who was president and CEO of Intrawest USA and president and CEO of Harbor Properties in Seattle before shifting to Bellevue where his projects have included Kemper Freeman's Bellevue Collection and whose resort projects have included the development of the Village at Mammoth, Schweitzer Mountain Resort and the Village at Whistler, was convinced he could guide a NatureBridge survival.
Beyond merely surviving, NatureBridge, with its goal of providing environmental education in national parks, has now launched distance learning programs in classrooms across the country to reach kids who may never visit a national park. So NatureBridge has been able to innovate and grow and is well-positioned now to weather the pandemic.
This all came about because Holmes, buoyed by his confidence in NatureBridge’s history of excellence and its strong leadership, called on his community to match his own contribution of up to $25,000. Not only did he get over $25,000 in donations but attracted the attention of Malcolm (Max) Witter, board member of the Dean Witter Foundation. a former Seattleite who now lives in the Coachella Valley.
For background, The Dean Witter Foundation supports specific wildlife conservation projects and seminal opportunities to improve and extend environmental education. The Foundation makes additional grants to launch and expand innovative K-12 public education initiatives and seeks to practice imaginative grantmaking in the fields of education and conservation.
So comes the personally satisfying aspects of this NatureBridge story, one that exemplifies that sometimes the writer gets to be more than an observer.
In April I did a column on Holmes, NatureBridge’s plight, and his personal call for a match to his $25,000.
I saw that Witter, who gets The Harp, had opened it so I emailed him to see if he would like to connect with Holmes.
He did and then discussed with fellow director Allison Witter Frey, a Seattlite and, like Malcolm, grandchild of Dean Witter.
they notified the remaining directors at The Dean Witter Foundation of the opportunity to help NatureBridge and Holmes’ two-for-one match. Between Holmes, Witter, and over 700 donors, NatureBridge raised $1.1 million in a few months.
Designed to support teachers and connect kids to nature, NatureBridge has been able to not only reach many of the students who were supposed to come to their in-person programs but also students who live hundreds of miles from a national park and might not ever be able to make the trip. Its leadership now sees the scale of impact as tremendous with this new online component.
And NatureBridge came to be able to conduct family camps in Yosemite, one of the four national parks where it looks to fully restore in-park programs once the pandemic permits. The others are Olympic, Golden Gate and Prince William Forest in Virginia.
So now as NatureBridge approaches its 50th year, it continues to make advancements in Distance Learning education. Its leaders know the pandemic will change the way they teach kids with quality distance learning experiences increasingly a part of high-quality education.