Amongst the scenic historic backdrop of birds chirping, thick forests and a variety of mounted animals, stands four signs of blueprints and 3-D models: the signs of the future for Iowa’s first nature center.
The Nature Center, 6665 Otis Rd SE Cedar Rapids, held its first program celebrating Groundhog Day 40 years ago today, and continued the yearly tradition Saturday. The center is home to many programs including outdoor activities and informational sessions, with its main focus being simply to get people exposed to a variety of nature.
“People need to experience the outdoors,” executive director John Myers said. “If they don’t, they lose a lot of their heritage, they lose their ability to be creative…there’s always something changing and nature is a really important piece to see.”
On Feb. 2, 1974 the center held its first program, and currently serves roughly 40,000 people every year. Now there are multiple nature centers across Iowa, but the Cedar Rapids program remains the only center that is a non-profit.
“I think more innovation comes from the private sector than the public sector,” emeritus director Rich Patterson said. “You’re also hungrier, and being hungry is a powerful thing. You have to get people to come or you’ll be unemployed, it’s just a matter of time; that’s not always the case for government run programs.”
Despite having some funding issues over the four decades, the center’s large growth has prompted a fundraising campaign to change locations, from its current home in a 1932 dairy farm to a new building that would allow visitors to experience a wider variety of environments with a new sustainable center.
“It’s dying, Myers said. “We flooded in 2008, and we’re quite small for what we’re trying to do. The programs have been growing, and more school groups are out [to visit].”
Patterson said young children are an incredibly important demographic for the center to have, and in the past 36 years he has been with the program, some large changes have occurred with that demographic.
“They tend to be much more inside, concentrating on watching T.V. or playing video games, things we didn’t even have back then,” Patterson said. “There are some kids who are just excited to go outside, but most are likely to stay inside, so we’re trying to get them out more.”
Six-year-old Lily Eilers dug into the snow as a smile spread across her face. She has been coming to the center since she was one, and enjoys the experiences the center offers.
“It’s fun, I get to go fishing, and look at frogs, and tag monarch butterflies,” she said. “All kinds of different nature stuff. I like to be outside, you get to play.”
The enjoyment has been passed down from Lily’s grandmother, Carol Eilers, who was fitting on some cross-country snow shoes next to her granddaughter. Eilers has visited the Nature Center for the past 25 years, and says the lesson the center teaches are important for everyone, particularly as nature seems to diminish over the years.
“It’s great to have people and kids connect with nature and learn more about preservation and conservation,” the Cedar Rapids resident said. “I think [the center] is extremely important to have, especially as cities begin to grow, because then [nature] just becomes more invaluable.”