When the Evanston Ecology Center (EEC) introduced an apiary with about 40,000 honeybees earlier this spring, it caused quite the buzz. At first, the public attention was appreciated, but the EEC has received so many media requests in the last few weeks that the staff has started to decline them. "We just don't have the time for it," program coordinator Matt Poole says.
In fact, the bees are only a small part of the slew of programs run by Poole and his partner Erika Doroghazi at the EEC, located on McCormick Boulevard about two miles west of campus. Warm weather activities include night hikes with animal education, soil preparation and Girl Scout badge-earning activities. The center also hosts an indoor farmer's market during the winter, an environmental film festival and summer camps. From May to July, Poole also coordinates onsite weddings almost weekly.
"A dozen or more things have to happen throughout the day to keep things moving," Poole says. "The pace is outrageous, but we can handle it."
For Evanstonians of all ages, it's good news that the duo are no novices to the outdoor scene. Twenty-seven-year-old Poole, worked in various outdoor education positions before coming to the EEC three years ago; Doroghazi holds a bachelor's degree in environmental studies and agriscience with a concentration in community engagement and education. She moved to Chicago in 2013 and worked as a part-time instructor at EEC and other nature centers before becoming a full-time EEC instructor.
"When we were brought in here, the place had become stagnant," Poole says. "They'd been doing the same series of programs over and over with no real changes, so we were charged with making it new and better and different."
While they have already made progress in expanding the center's offerings, at the rate they are growing Poole says they'll soon need more people. With the surrounding 17-acre Ladd Arboretum, EEC has an abundance of space, but limited funds. Doroghazi, Poole and one front-desk clerk are the only full-time staff.
The center operates as part of Evanston's Parks, Recreation and Community Services department, but the Evanston Environmental Association (EEA), a local nonprofit, helps to fund special projects like the apiary. Dick Peach, the president of the group, says they have allotted enough funds to keep the apiary running for around four years, though they want to continue supporting the project long after.
"There's always a need at the ecology center," says Peach, who meets with the center's staff to get a yearly wish list outlining projects and renovations.
From this list, the EEA board determines which projects to pursue. Each year, they also organize several large fundraisers, and this year, the Evanston Green Ball celebrated bees as the guest of honor.
"We're there to be the backup," Peach says. "Every year we have to fight to keep the doors open."
The ecology center's doors first opened in 1976 thanks to the EEA. Peach says the organization, formed by a group of concerned citizens, fundraised to establish the center as a place of citizen education. Over the 10-plus-years Peach has been an EEA board member, though, he and other members have needed to appear before the City Council to advocate for the Ecology Center's value. He says the city has threatened to close the center because it wasn't making enough money to sustain itself.
Doroghazi says they plan on expanding outreach once new projects become better established. Right now, she says the center mostly relies on word of mouth to spread its name through local schools. Emails sent out through the city's reach also increased participation significantly, she says.
But for interested students, there are opportunities to volunteer and they can even register in the community garden plot lottery each spring if they live in zip codes 60201 and 60202.
Despite the center's educational focus, long history and proximity to campus, EEC and Northwestern have had few interactions. The Tiny House, a sustainable 128-square-foot house created by NU students in 2012 and permanently located at the center, is one of only a few collaborations. Doroghazi admits there hasn't been much programming geared toward college students over the years, but it's a possibility for the future.
"I would welcome it, but there's a lot of projects in the queue," Doroghazi says.
Some of those plans include a small-scale indoor demonstration of a closed-loop, vertical aquaponics system for visitors and a chicken coop next spring. So if you're tired of therapy dogs and miniature horses, or are allergic to fur, consider the scenic walk to Evanston's own ecology center.
"We've been working very hard to make some ideas reality," Poole says. "It is overwhelming, but I enjoy it."