As Holly Meeks and Paula Clair settle into their patio chairs at Market House on the Square on a beautiful fall day for lunch, thereâ€™s an aura of calm surrounding the two of them. And itâ€™s no wonder why. As Lake Forestâ€™s Open Lands director of marketing and outreach and vice president and director of development, respectively, these two are basking in the glow of another memorable Bagpipes & Bonfireâ€”the organizationâ€™s largest fundraiserâ€”that had taken place just three days prior.
â€śIt was a really successful event,â€ť says Holly. â€śWeâ€™re 26 years in and starting to see this as a multigenerational affair. We have people coming who remember attending as children. Itâ€™s very neat to see.â€ť
Even with more than 1,700 attendees this year, this duo canâ€™t help but ask how they could improve the event. â€śEvery year we ask ourselves, what are things that we should change? What should we do differently? And the responses are always the sameâ€”donâ€™t change a thing!â€ť says Paula, who attended Bagpipes long before she lived in the community. â€śI remember coming to Bagpipes with a baby in the pram, never imagining that I would one day work here. But I enjoyed knowing what to expect,â€ť she adds.
With Bagpipes & Bonfire securing its spot on Lake Forestâ€™s list of unique offerings, Holly and Paulaâ€”along with the incredibly engaged board at Lake Forest Open Landsâ€”are looking for avenues to broaden the organizationâ€™s exposure to a wider community.
Lake Forest Open Lands maintains more than 800 acres of open spaceâ€”including woodlands, wetlands, and several rare and globally-significant prairies, ravines, and savannas. These nature preserves reach all the way from the lakefront to the more rural landscapes west of Waukegan Road. Lake Forest Open Lands is independently funded and does not receive money from the local tax dollars for its stewardship and educational programs. And while it may not be the largest land trust in the country, itâ€™s nationally recognized as one of the countryâ€™s most premier.
â€śI really believe in what we do. I love the land. I love the educational components. To hear childrenâ€™s voices all year long, learning about the environmentâ€”itâ€™s really meaningful. Itâ€™s easy to see the importance of Open Lands to the future of our land. Lake Forest is unique in that so many children grow up in this community and then return here to raise their own families. We need to make sure that we secure the future of our open spaces,â€ť Holly says.
Lake Forest Open Lands relies on the efforts of volunteers for many of its projects. â€śPeople want to become involved in the community, but just arenâ€™t sure quite how,â€ť senses Paula. â€śOur Volunteer Work Days are the first Saturday of every month and are a great place for people to get started. You just show up.â€ť
Volunteer Work Days are particularly wonderful for high school students with a passion for the environment. â€śSome of our work days are specifically scheduled on days the high school kids are off,â€ť adds Holly. â€śItâ€™s perfect for kids who need service hours or extra creditâ€”they really enjoy it.â€ť
Another wildly popular program at Lake Forest Open Lands program is its summer camp. â€śWe sell out of almost all of our camps by March,â€ť explains Holly, noting that the intimate size of the camps is what really makes them special. â€śWe always feel badly when people call us in May and they are all filled up. January is really the time to start thinking about our camps.â€ť
Few boards can boast of the longevity that the Lake Forest Open Lands Board can. â€śWeâ€™re really a template for so many other groups. As casual as we are, weâ€™re very professional. Weâ€™re always looking at what we can offer, what we can do better. Weâ€™re very forward thinkingâ€”anticipating challenges that may be coming down the road and coming up with solutions,â€ť Paula says, adding that one in five Lake Forest households has an Open Landsâ€™ membership.
â€śWhile we would like 100 percent community membership, weâ€™re so grateful to the members we have,â€ť Holly says. â€śThey attend our events, support us financially, and volunteer their time. But we could always be bigger.â€ť
To learn more about Lake Forest Open Lands and to get a sneak peek at the summer camps they have lined up for 2014, visit lfola.org.
â€”Ann Marie Scheidler // Illustration by Kirsten Ulve