As legend has it, it was love at first sight. The date was 1999. The man was John Flicker, then CEO of the National Audubon Society, on a location hunt for his vision: to open a nature center in an area of high diversity, to reach those typically underserved by outdoors educational programs. Coming down S. Orcas Street, so the story goes, he took one look at the 277-acre old growth Seward Park peninsula jutting out into Lake Washington, Mount Rainier in the background, and said “this is it.” The location, it turned out, was in one of the most diverse communities in the country. The nature center had a new home.
The rest of the story is not quite as serendipitous. It would take nearly ten more years to transform Flicker’s vision into reality. First came the lobbying, surveying, fundraising, meetings with the parks board and city council. Then came restoring the Tudor-style house to historic preservation status requirements, purposefully using sustainable and renewable materials. “The City of Seattle was new to this type of public-private partnership, so all told it was a long, deliberate and slow process, but well-worth it,” says Gail Gatton, executive director of Audubon Washington.
Ever since the Center opened its doors on April 26, 2008, which happened to be John James Audubon’s birthday – “it was a complete coincidence!” laughs Gail – the community has embraced the Center. “Whether it’s our nature walks, classes, summer camps, or our local school field-trip program, the local residents have instilled in us a sense of community support right from the beginning,” says center director Joey Manson. “In the years since, we’ve truly become a part of people’s lives, where people celebrate their own milestones like birthdays and graduation parties at our center. The root of our mission is connecting community with opportunities to be in nature, and we think of ourselves as a first step toward people getting engaged with the greater outdoors.”
As the center reaches its ten-year milestone, Woody Wheeler, former director of education for Audubon Washington who played a central role in the initial development of the Audubon Center at Seward Park, reflects on the success. “I like to think that Audubon’s presence is what really transforms parks into true community educational centers, where people learn how to be stewards of the environment in which they live. It’s amazing to witness all that hard work pay off, and to watch Flicker’s original vision change so many lives.”
Today, the Seward Park Audubon Center serves thousands of elementary school children each year. The center offers a variety of programs and supports various partnerships focused on connecting families to wild spaces in their backyards and providing them with the skills to lead a lifetime of active, outdoor explorations. One example of this is the Center’s ongoing support for the National Park Foundation “Every Kid in a Park” campaign which provides 4th graders and their families free access to national parks across the country.
As the 10-year anniversary celebration kicks off, Joey already has his eyes on the future. “Throughout our 10 years here, we’ve been listening to what the community wants, and have adjusted our programming accordingly, and as a result we’re now bringing in more young people and families,” he says. “It’s exciting to see, because we believe that people take care of what they love, and love what they know, and with the community’s help, we are on track to achieve our mission of helping more people engage in, and embrace, the outdoors.”