Fontenelle Forest Executive Director Named 2020 Outstanding New Leader by Association of Nature Center Administrators

On July 9, 2020, Fontenelle Forest Executive Director, Merica Whitehall, was named the 2020 Outstanding New Leader by the Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA). The ANCA is the only professional association in the United States dedicated to leaders in the nature and environmental learning center profession, including directors, managers, and senior administrators. Each year, the ANCA recognizes an individual with the potential for future impact within the field of nature center administrators.

ANCA Executive Director, Jen Levy, shared why the organization chose to honor Whitehall in 2020 stating, “Every year the Association of Nature Center Administrators recognizes the very best in our profession by presenting two Leadership Awards. Recipients are nominated by their peers and communities and the winners are selected by a committee of ANCA members that include past award winners and ANCA board members. I am thrilled that Merica Whitehall was chosen to receive the 2020 ANCA Outstanding New Leader Award for her role as Executive Director of Fontenelle Forest in Omaha. She is a skilled nonprofit leader who demonstrates a passion for the mission of Fontenelle Forest. The committee was most impressed with Merica’s demonstrated strengths in building relationships and engaging her community. In addition, she has shared her expertise with ANCA members by presenting at our annual summit and serving on an ANCA committee, as well as an ANCA Peer Consult Team. She is most deserving of this recognition and I look forward to celebrating her accomplishments with the ANCA community.”

 The ANCA Outstanding New Leader Award criteria states:

Leadership: The successful nominee will demonstrate organizational leadership guiding a team of staff, board, volunteers, and community stakeholders in the success of a center and potential in the assumption of leadership roles, creativity in programming, facility development, administration, and a commitment to the profession.

Professionalism: The individual earns the respect of peers, staff, and the community. They represent the field of nature center administration with professional integrity and furthers best practices in the discipline. Ideal nominees will lead by example, inspire others to work creatively and collaboratively, demonstrate initiative, and promote a work environment that is respectful, collegial, supportive, and diverse.

Professional Development: The ideal nominee demonstrates an ongoing desire for learning and self-improvement, shares their knowledge with peers, and is active in ANCA, regionally or nationally.

Creativity: The nominee applies best practices and new skills to creative problem solving within their center.

Catherine Demes Maydew, treasurer of the Fontenelle Forest Board of Directors, has worked with Whitehall for nearly four years and nominated her for the award.

“Merica’s talent, excitement and drive have kept us moving on the forward and upward trajectory ‘trail’ of organizational growth. As the ED for the organization she pushes and expands the ‘business as usual’ motto to think creatively. She has brought in local and international artists to create work in the Forest and to display in a gallery in our main building. This draws in new and non-forest members to experience the Forest while attending an art exhibit,” said Catherine.

“While she is not at the Forest, Merica represents our organization in a variety of ways throughout the community and country. ANCA has requested her to serve on their national organization, and she has twice presented at their national conference. Locally, five of the Omaha area’s major foundations have recognized her leadership by inviting her to participate in exclusive leadership opportunities. She has also found the time to volunteer on the boards of the Nebraska Land Trust, Back to the River, Opera Omaha, and the Offutt Advisory Council.”

About Merica Whitehall and Fontenelle Forest:

Merica Whitehall joined Fontenelle Forest as executive director in June 2016. She made the move to Omaha after serving two years as the executive director at the Nature Consortium in Seattle, Washington.

Under the direction of Whitehall, Fontenelle Forest has undergone a wide range of transformation and growth resulting in the Forest making great strides towards the goal of becoming a national leader in environmental stewardship and education, and the region’s premier nature center.

During her first year, Whitehall oversaw the completion of a 20-year Master Plan that engaged over 60 stakeholders, developed organizational values adopted by the board of directors, and oversaw the creation of an extensive 2015-2017 strategic plan. By the end of 2017, the Forest had improved its financial stability, was debt-free for the first time in several years, and has remained so ever since. She has subsequently overseen the creation and implementation of a five-year, 2018-2022 strategic plan including several major strategic initiatives that will not only benefit the Forest, but the surrounding community as well.

In 2019, the Forest’s mission of providing a place where people can experience and enjoy the quiet wild of nature was elevated to new heights – literally. The opening of TreeRush Adventures at Fontenelle Forest was designed to offer a new and exciting way to engage members of the community to explore and discover nature. The 5-acre, $1.6 million aerial adventure park features zip lines, suspended bridges and trail courses of varying levels, offering a bird’s eye view high up in the trees at Fontenelle Forest. Coming up on its one-year anniversary, TreeRush is excited to once again be open and bustling with climbing activity after a brief closure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Louis F. “Chip” Davis Eagle Mew, which offers an up-close observation experience with resident eagles Fisher and Freedom, opened in 2018. The eagle mew is a 1000 square foot enclosure and the crown jewel of the Raptor Woodland Refuge, a canopy-level exhibit built 30 feet above the forest floor designed according to the natural habitat of the rescued birds housed within it.

Whitehall has also forged several strategic partnerships designed to strengthen the Forest’s core value of being a strong community partner and creating a natural space that is welcoming and inclusive of all people. She had a vision to create a public program to increase the diversity of Fontenelle Forest visitors and expand accessibility for community members in need. Today, anyone can visit Fontenelle Forest at no charge through the Library Pass Program, in partnership with Omaha, Bellevue and Council Bluffs public libraries. Any library member can check out a pass that provides families free admission to the Forest for a day.

Always thinking outside the box on how to inspire new audiences to explore nature, Whitehall drew on what she knew best (art) and transformed an underutilized space in the Katherine and Fred Buffett Forest Learning Center into an art gallery. The Baright Gallery Artist Series allows for the exploration of the human relationship with nature through art and features a new local or national artist (or group of artists) each quarter. Currently on display is “Community,” a non-juried, salon-style exhibit that includes approximately 85 works of art by 35 individuals (both members and non-members). The exhibit highlights the diverse and multifaceted ecosystem of local community artists.

During her time as executive director, Fontenelle Forest’s land holdings have increased to include the acquisition of Camp Wa-Kon-Da and the Heinz property, adding 60 acres that totaled a $1.1M increase in the value of property holdings. A comprehensive trail system assessment was completed and repairs to several trails were implemented to increase the sustainability and longevity of the Forest’s trail system. Improvements to the Neale Woods property in North Omaha, including the addition of a dedicated on-site ranger and recent installation of an iron ranger gate have been implemented, increasing accessibility to a safe and welcoming natural space for the residents of North Omaha.

While it’s always been known that access to natural spaces is important to the overall health and wellbeing of a community as a whole, during the current COVID-19 pandemic it became absolutely essential. Suddenly, the nation was seeing the return of families spending time in nature at unprecedented levels. At a time when even local parks were closed, maintaining community access to the Fontenelle Forest trail system became extremely important. With over 2,100 acres and 24 miles of trails just minutes from downtown Omaha, the Forest suddenly found itself in a unique position to provide the community with an avenue to find respite in nature while safely maintaining social distancing protocols. Whitehall worked tirelessly with Fontenelle Forest leadership and the Board of Directors to successfully keep the trails open for members and guests, despite the buildings being closed to the public for over three months. Tired of being cooped up inside, people took advantage of the access to such a vast natural resource so close to home and have repeatedly expressed their thankfulness for the trails being open. The Forest has seen record levels of attendance and membership to date in 2020, a highly unusual circumstance for any small business to find itself in during these unprecedented times. Thankfully, the Forest was able to reopen its doors on July 1, 2020.

This year marks the centennial celebration of Fontenelle Forest’s first land purchase. For decades the Forest has been striving to provide a place where people can experience and enjoy the quiet wild of nature and Whitehall is working hard to ensure the Forest can continue to realize this important mission for the next 100 years.

Fontenelle Forest is a 501(c)(3) tax exempt nonprofit.

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