From the Desk of Jeff Swenerton
By Jeff Swenerton
Small, focused organizations can be remarkably effective. As I reflect back on my experience as a board member of The Escondido Creek Conservancy, I am honored to be a part of an organization that has accomplished so much, and I know that its future will hold the same promise. Of the many successes the Conservancy and its small group of visionaries have achieved over the years, there are three that I am most proud to be a part of: the establishment of our education program, the building of a remarkable Interpretive Center at the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve, and the ongoing fundraising efforts to sustain the great work the Conservancy does.
When founding Conservancy board member and friend Steve Barker arrived on my doorstep—just days after my retirement from the Del Mar Union School District—to ask me to join the Conservancy, it was initially to help with fundraising efforts. I accepted the challenge. At that time, the priority of the Conservancy was to acquire and preserve open space in the watershed. We eventually learned that most people did not know Escondido Creek existed even though it passed through their community, let alone how to preserve it. As a board, we realized if we were to preserve Escondido Creek, an education program was essential. Utilizing my experience as an educator, my role as a board member soon changed as the Conservancy expanded its goals to develop an education program. A good outdoor education program requires a good venue, and fortunately, a perfect opportunity arose.
In late 2006, we began a conversation with Olivenhain Municipal Water District about the possibility of building a small Interpretive Center on land that they managed at the 784-acre Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve. A remarkable partnership was formed between the water district and the Conservancy to build an Interpretive Center in 2007. The Conservancy raised over $565,000 for its construction, with the water district managing the build. We knew that the Interpretive Center would become something very unique when San Diego County’s most well-known artist, James Hubbell, and his architect son Drew Hubbell, were selected to design the building. Its construction was completed in June of 2009. Today visitors are awed by the Center’s art, its children’s science lab with a powerful video microscope, extensive animal and insect collections, and of course, the bones and skulls collection. The Interpretive Center provided (and continues to provide) the perfect staging area for our outdoor education program.
With a venue in place, thus began our education programming, which started very small and was coordinated by water district supervising ranger Jeff Anderson and myself. The program grew from the many ideas and skills of individual docents and collaborations with the San Diego Zoo and other organizations. The guiding principle, which we continue in our programming to this day, is that we create environmental stewards of the future not by telling them about nature, but by having them take on the role of scientists and explore the answers to essential questions. This empowers them to take responsibility for their learning during the program and beyond. This approach proved effective, and with our programs rapidly expanding, we hired two talented education staff members, Simon Breen and Jennifer Imm, to continue and expand our education programming. Today we now provide outdoor education programs to thousands of students annually, including all third graders from the Escondido Union School District. Both the school district and the Conservancy grew over my tenure and are stronger because of their small beginnings.
Support the Conservancy’s Education Fund.
Coming full circle, I have recently turned much of my focus back on fundraising for the Conservancy, which is such a crucial part of any nonprofit’s success. Specifically, I am co-chairing a new Seed the Future campaign, which will help sustain and grow the Conservancy’s education programs and innovative project. In raising the necessary funds, it has been a real pleasure to meet a group of generous donors that have given so much to our organization. These people recognize the importance of philanthropy. They have selected the Conservancy because of what we have accomplished since our founding in 1991.
“Jeff is an extraordinary mentor and an inspiration to me. He’s a renaissance man of many talents, and he channels his boundless passion, energy, and skills into action. Whether it’s engaging a student, appealing to a donor, or mobilizing a volunteer crew, he always brings out the best in people.” • Simon Breen, Escondido Creek Conservancy Education Director
I will always feel very honored to be part of this incredible organization, a visionary and inspiring board, and to work with our director Ann Van Leer and her amazing staff. Though I am stepping down from the board, I look forward to continuing to work with the Conservancy on our Seed the Future education fundraising campaign, my membership on the Interpretive Center Advisory Committee, volunteering with kids in the education program, and my Sunday morning weekly mountain bike volunteer trail patrols in the Keithley Preserve. Today, the Conservancy is making a difference that is vitally important as we face the challenges of the future. We invite you to join us.