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KEEN Connects: Looking back on 2019

Sustainability. It means different things to different people. A simple definition might be “something that can be maintained at a certain level for as long as necessary.” When applied to the environment it can mean that resources are not depleted… they can be sustained indefinitely as long as they are stewarded properly.

With development it can mean “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” When it comes to running a non-profit organization like KEEN in a rural community, sustainability can mean raising enough money to meet program needs, finding volunteers and board members to make lasting commitments, and creating policies that support the mission.

An old boss once told me that nothing is as sustainable as change. I have been thinking about that as I reflect on the past year.

In 2019, KEEN spent some time reviewing our mission statement, our program offerings, and the ability of our small working board to get all the work done. We all felt passionately that a change was needed. We spent a day together in retreat and revised our focus: Our mission is to cultivate an active awareness and understanding of the endangered shrub-steppe, provide nature-based education for all ages, and strengthen commitment to environmental stewardship.

Our vision is that KEEN is the go-to organization for outdoor and nature-based learning experiences in Central Washington operating out of the fully-funded Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center at Helen McCabe Park. The shrub-steppe is a thriving and protected landscape that is beloved by community members and visitors alike.

We want to reach that vision, and so our work during the retreat really focused on strengthening our existing efforts. In 2019 KEEN’s Education and Stewardship committees grew and excelled, our events grew and faced new challenges, and our board membership dwindled unexpectedly at the end of the year. We experienced a simultaneous growth in our programming and impact, and a significant downturn in grant funding and private donations. The year was at once depressing and thrilling.

Personally, I have devoted nearly 20 years of my life to this organization. It is my passion and my drive. I have seen board members come and go. I have seen grant money flow and ebb. I have seen lives changed by our work to connect our community with the surrounding environment. I have been disappointed, dispirited, angry, thrilled, excited, and full of positive expectations.

Nothing is as sustainable as change.

Some amazing highlights from the year include the vast reach our free summer Science in the Parks program had for families in Kittitas County. We hired a bilingual staff person to run the program — simple nature and science based activities that families could engage in during an afternoon at the park. We reached an incredible 500 community members this year! Parents and kiddos were looking for us at the park each week — it is a great program that we’d like to continue.

Pond to Pines Summer Nature Camps continue to have a strong impact and provide life-changing summer outdoor experiences to K-9th grade kids in our community. But funding the camps continues to be a challenge for KEEN. Grant funding has fallen through for two years in a row and scholarship donations have waned. The KEEN board voted to use internal funds to support the summer camp again for 2020. We believe in the power of outdoor education to change lives.

Our events — some that focus on education and some that focus on just fun — continue to grow in impact and return on investment. Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe saw its 20th year come and go at Helen McCabe State Park with a great crowd learning and engaging with our endangered surroundings. We provided the free KEEN Winter Fair that highlights our work and the work of other environmental and sustainable organizations in the region. We’ll continue to offer that venue for connections — look for it on the last Saturday of January each year at Hal Holmes.

WindFall Cider Fest — pure fun for KEENers — continues to grow and attract fans from across the state and even neighboring states. Over 600 folks attended in 2019 and we can’t wait to expand. Music, local cider, and good food and friends makes for a fun fall evening. Save the date for Oct. 3, 2020.

The Yakima River Canyon Bird Fest will make an appearance again May 8-10 2020 and is an unparalleled opportunity to get outdoors and witness some of the most amazing bird species migrating through our region. Great for beginners and experienced birders — we can’t wait for this event.

Perhaps most exciting about 2019 was our progress in our partnership with Washington State Parks and Recreation. The future of the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center (YCIC) relies upon this partnership. KEEN was successful in securing an MOU and agreement to revise the current lease for another 50 years (the longest timeframe possible) for Helen McCabe State Park. Our stewardship work over the past 15 years spoke volumes to the State Parks Commissioners, and they were unanimous in their support of our efforts to build the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center there.

In a couple of days KEEN’s board will meet for lunch with Ross McCabe, Dr. Helen McCabe’s son, in Ellensburg. His words resonate with us and keep me, personally, working hard to make KEEN sustainable and strong for the future. “…I’ve thought a lot about you and your activities which have consistently moved me… and I have not forgotten them for a moment in regards to who you are, primarily, and KEEN and what you do with KEEN… I hope to get out to Seattle in December and maybe I can come over for lunch… I am very moved by all of what you do and feel like you’ve gotten the spirit of everything I’ve learned from my mother and are carrying that on.”

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