Blog: Susan Westhoff

It's owls and eagles and vultures (oh my!) at the Leslie Science & Nature Center in Ann Arbor. LSNC Executive Director Susan Westhoff writes on transformation at the individual and organizational level and how to measure the intangibles of success.

From Trumpet to Trees: Transformation and Evolution

I feel almost as if I'm confessing here that I have a degree in music.  Trumpet performance, to be exact.  It is not exactly what you expect to find as the background for the director of a nature center, and yet I find it is precisely the right fit for me, and for the Leslie Science & Nature Center. I am lucky enough to have spent the last 15 years of my life working for various non-profits, oscillating between the performing arts and the outdoor education field.  Both are areas I care passionately about, and spend a majority of my free time enjoying.  After working at such diverse organizations, I finally realized skills are truly transferable. As long as you have the ability to truly remain open to learning a new subject area, and devote the time and energy to doing so, you can take your management skills almost anywhere.

Not only individuals, but also organizations, go through transformation.  You could call it an evolution, even. There is a beginning, followed by a period (or several periods!) of change, hopefully some calm and steady times, often followed by change again. This transformation keeps the organization relevant and interesting, and I like to think, does the same for me.

The Leslie Science & Nature Center has itself had many layers of transformation. Starting as a component of the city back in the '80s, it was run by the Parks & Rec department until 2007, when it was reorganized to better meet the needs of our larger community in the face of dwindling municipal resources. At that point, a group of passionate individuals decided it would be best to have the organization become a separate 501(c)3 non-profit providing environmental education for children, families, and other individuals by fostering understanding, appreciation, stewardship and respect for the natural world. The city of Ann Arbor provided bridge support to LSNC in its transition, and today LSNC is a sustainable non-profit. In an era in which public access to culture, the natural world and education is ever more strained, the work and mission of our organization is very important and vital to the quality of life of the region.  

In the region, there is not another nonprofit dedicated to environmental and science education with the one-of-a-kind natural site, live animals and innovative programming as the LSNC. We are located in Ann Arbor, on 50 acres of fields, forest, prairie and a pond. The site also houses fifteen birds of prey in open air enclosures; a reptile and small mammal collection; and a green building that incorporates recycled materials, solar energy and composting toilets. Once the home and laboratory to Dr. Eugene and Emily Leslie, LSNC continues to honor and perpetuate the legacy of the Leslies. Reaching all of southeast Michigan from Jackson to Detroit and Toledo to Flint, LSNC serves over 60,000 children and adults every year.  

LSNC offers an array of unique and pedagogically-sound programs to teach science, physics and stewardship principles. Our innovative programming – both onsite and in the classroom – helps learners to master important basic and advanced science principles while developing a connection to the great outdoors through interactive multi-sensory activities. Our programs are led by college-educated, enthusiastic educators committed to seeing young people succeed in school and life. LSNC provides underserved students access to interesting and advanced learning experiences.  

Our work reaches and impacts children from all walks of life, including those with autism, learning disabilities and hearing impairments. While improving the minds of children served is very important to LSNC, our live animals, outdoor exposure and academic enrichment programs also promote wellness and health, from encouraging youth to engage in fitness activities outdoors to helping children think more clearly and concentrate better. Our live raptor programs are especially well-received and popular; these birds of prey, all of whom have permanent injuries that prevent them from being released into the wild, are now used in educational programming. We also educate the general public about protecting and preserving wildlife habitat, and environmental practices such as recycling, composting, and organic gardening.  

Volunteers are a vital part of the LSNC and participate in almost every aspect of the organization.  Volunteers work in the Critter House, assist program coordinators, help out with trail maintenance, garden in our native plant beds, and participate in a variety of special programs. The organization is governed by an independent volunteer board of directors. The board of directors, as a group and as individuals, provide organizational governance, but also take an active role in fundraising, fiscal stewardship, networking, public relations, long-range strategic development, event planning, and board recruitment.  

Leslie Science & Nature Center remains a special place for learning and exploration that is sustained by the community, donors and supporters. Thousands of individuals, annually, visit the Center to connect with nature and strengthen their appreciation for, and understanding of, the complex beauty and magnificence of the natural world.