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'Reorganization' at Sugar Grove Nature Center raises outcry and concerns over transparency

Sugar Grove Nature Center
Sugar Grove Nature Center FB page

A decision to reorganize operations and lay off veteran staffers at the Sugar Grove Nature Center has provoked public backlash and raised concerns about transparency, nonprofit board management, and the future of the popular outdoor attraction in rural McLean County.

Come Friday, Feb. 10, all four of the nature center's staff members will be officially terminated, with hours to the visitor's center at the site, as well as some programming, reduced accordingly.

The change is the result of a vote by members of the Sugar Grove Foundation, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit and board that oversees the forested, 1,000-acre site in Funks Grove off historic Route 66.

While the land is privately owned, it has been publicly accessible with center-provided programming for years. Groups like Master Naturalists, the Illinois Valley Blacksmithing Association and Twin City Amateur Astronomers use the property; it also plays host to field trips from homeschoolers and students from schools as far away as Chicago.

"It was definitely a challenging decision and really heartbreaking," Tricia Braid, the board president, said in a recent interview with WGLT.

In that interview and in a written statement on behalf of the board, Braid described the Nature Center as jeopardized by "resource constraints," and unable to keep itself financially afloat. Those constraints, she said, meant the Foundation "needed to shift employment responsibility" to a different, nonprofit board — in this case, the Funks Grove Cemetery Association that serves as one of the Nature Center's funders in addition to donations, grants and memberships.

"In that administrative shift, what we've done is preserve the opportunity for as many people as possible to continue enjoying the experiences that are so unique to Funks Grove and the Sugar Grove Nature Center," she said.

But that decision has prompted outcry from donors, paying members and volunteers who told WGLT the change caught them by surprise.

'A lot of donors are questioning where the money is going to go'

"I find this a very rude awakening," said Karen Stephens, a retired director of the Illinois State University Child Care Center. "As a person who has donated and publicly supported this place, I was amazed to see over the last three days on the Facebook page, just: 'The visitor center is closed' — with no explanation."

The blacksmith forge at Sugar Grove Nature Center.
Jeffrey Smudde
WGLT file
The blacksmith forge at Sugar Grove Nature Center.

It was a surprise, too, for Rita Yordy, the Nature Center's part-time office specialist of four years and a decade-long volunteer. Yordy said she was on vacation in Florida when she learned that some of her coworkers were going to be terminated.

Part of her job duties included processing paid memberships and using QuickBooks accounting software; Yordy said she was locked out before she got back from vacation.

"I gave them a financial report every month for the last four years," Yordy told WGLT. "I always did a triple-check to make sure that the expenses and the revenues were going in the right accounts. And I couldn't do that."

When she returned from vacation, the situation played out almost like a comedic trope: Yordy said she stopped working before Friday, Feb. 10, in protest of the decision that would end up laying off her and others, including 19-year Nature Center executive director Angela Funk.

"I went in a different day than what was (expected). I emailed the treasurer of the board and said, 'You owe me for 3 1/2 hours; my key is on the desk and I will not be here Friday to turn anything in because I don't have anything,'" Yordy said.

The letter of termination arrived in Yordy's mailbox shortly after.

Funk, who is credited with building the Nature Center into the accoladed organization it is today, was handed her termination letter, as was Jill Wallace, another employee whose tenure was approaching 20 years.

"This was not based on any of our performances. Our performances were all above-board," Yordy said. "In fact, they never handed down any reprimands or anything else and never paid any attention to us until this last three months."

Yordy disputes the idea that Sugar Grove Nature Center could not have maintained normal operations for at least a short while longer.

"There's plenty of money in the bank for any unexpected things — at least for a while," she said. "We've got enough money to pay our stuff. For the most part, when we have a regular year with all of our programs, with all of our shelter rentals, with all of our donations and memberships, we don't have a problem."

Braid, who has been president of the Sugar Grove Foundation board for nearly a year, said the board faced stark choices and believes the decision, though it included unceremonious layoffs, was in the best interests for the long term.

"We were either going to stay on the path we were on, which was going to end sometime soon, and then things would be done — or we could choose a different path," she said. "Things might be a little bit more limited, but the long-range opportunity remains in place."

Donors who spoke with WGLT said they were not in favor of reducing staff or programming to the extent the board's decision will likely lead to.

Stephens, who said her work outside of ISU involved sitting on various boards herself, thinks donors may have stepped up to help if the board had told them of pending financial trouble or staff layoffs.

"It seems that a board would let us donors know that, 'Hey, we're struggling. Could you beef up donations?'" Stephens said. "When a very trusted entity in our community who receives generous dollars from its citizens doesn't act as a good steward and it's not accountable and transparent — it's a red flag. I don't want to donate to an organization that treats its staff that way."

Vicki Robertson is a donor and volunteer with the Illinois Grand Prairie Master Naturalist group, an educational program offered by the University of Illinois Extension that, historically, enjoyed a close relationship with the Nature Center. Robertson said she sent questions about what was going on directly to Braid.

"I sent a note to the president of that board out there just saying, you know, 'As a donor and a volunteer, here's a few questions I have. And if you can answer some of them — I understand you're under no obligation to answer them — I'd really appreciate it,'" Robertson recalled. "She said she needed a little bit more time to answer the questions, so I have not heard back about them."

Robertson said among the Nature Center regulars she converses with, uncertainty abounds regarding its future.

"A lot of us as donors are kind of questioning, 'Well, where's the money going to go now? Is it just going to be sucked to the foundation that runs the cemetery?'" she said. "At this point, nothing has been told to anybody. So the transparency issue is a little disconcerting, too."

'I had no idea — I didn't see this coming'

Braid described Sugar Grove Nature Center as yet another nonprofit whose financial health suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic and had not yet recovered, prompting the recent interest in its budget from the board.

The extent to which COVID impacted the Nature Center is not easily measured quickly: available IRS 990 forms from the Sugar Grove Foundation are all pre-pandemic, with the most recent one dating to 2019. None of the records indicate steep financial jeopardy, according to Nature Center staff.

The nonprofit entity (and its board) that is taking over employment of one full-time staffer, the Funks Grove Cemetery Association (FGCA), is comprised of nearly the same staff as that of the Sugar Grove Foundation.

The FGCA owns much of the land the center is on and it — along with other Stubblefield and Funk family trusts — is partial funder of the center.

"In my heart, I have always believed that the future of the Nature Center is vibrant. It is my hope that this unfortunate decision can eventually result in a positive outcome for the place that I love so much."
Angela Funk, executive director of the nature center

The optics of that overlap in membership, according to Foundation board member and Angela Funk's husband, Eric Funk, are known, especially as they relate to multiple family members populating both boards.

"They should be separated — and other board members agree, or at least they say they agree, that one of the things over the next six months, whatever it takes, is we should be reviewing how a nature center should act," Eric Funk said Wednesday. "Who is responsible for the operation and what kind of board should it be to make it a strong, viable organization."

Braid declined to answer further questions from WGLT regarding concerns that differences between board seat-holding family members had recently cost the Nature Center at least $50,000 in grant funding.

Funk, a founding board member, was more candid.

"The board shot itself in the foot with arguing with another family and losing a $50,000 donation that we received annually for 32 years," he said. "That's just the way it happened. That's why the money is short. The Cemetery Association told Angela over and over again not to worry — they would come up with the money. Well, they didn't."

It remains unclear who will be the one employee that the Cemetery Association pays for; Braid also declined to answer whether a public job posting was available anywhere. It's also possible that a part-timer will be brought on, Braid said initially, but that determination remains forthcoming.

For donors like Stephens and Robertson who said they have provided the Foundation a substantial amount of money over the years, that not-knowing is unsettling.

"No mention of what the qualifications of that person will be — or how one person can replace four people," Stephens said. "What qualifications they might have in nature, education and nature programming and early childhood programming — much less if they're going to even require a criminal background check."

Eric Funk said the board vote on moving employment to the Cemetery Association and laying off everyone, including his wife, came on Jan. 30. With staff set to turn over on Feb. 10, the notice was less than two weeks.

Funk was one of three people who didn't agree with the decision, but because the majority of members did, he is "in the minority."

His wife, in her role as executive director, had worked with staff to see if programming charges could be slightly increased to bring in more money — one of multiple proposals to keep things running the way Sugar Grove's regulars expect — but the Jan. 30 vote indicated the majority of board members did not find that viable, or wish to try it before making the change.

"I've been on the Sugar Grove board since its inception," Funk said. "I had no idea — I just didn't see this coming. I was surprised and so sorry for Angela."

'Eight turtles, three snakes, three salamanders, three tree frogs'

Longtime environmental educator Jill Wallace didn't see the turnover coming either, although there were "some hints" that "something big was going on."

Wallace said there had been board interest in employee operations, budgeting and more and that there was "some urgency" to the inquiries.

"It was like, 'That's a little odd that all of a sudden, they need all these instructions on how to do things," she said. "I guess there were definitely some hints, but we really did not imagine that it would shake out this way."

So sudden was the transition that, according to Wallace, no plan was set in place for the animals — some of them old — that called the Sugar Grove Nature Center home.

"All of a sudden the board realizes that it costs money and takes time to care for animals," she said. "They decided that, since we were cutting staff, all of the animals had to go, too."

Wallace's job duties included taking care of the animals, so now they live with her — all of them, eight turtles, three snakes, three salamanders, three tree frogs — while she searches for a more permanent solution involving "rigid vetting" before they're re-homed.

"To me, when we take these animals on, we're committed to giving them the best care that we can," she said. "That means getting them the care that they need, not thinking, 'Oh it's just a turtle. You can get another turtle.' I can't look at them just like they're a piece of property to be handed off to someone."

Sudden, too, was the notice given to Stephens, whose donations included a $3,000 gift of nature-oriented children's books to the center's library, that if she wanted her books gifted elsewhere, she would need to retrieve them by Thursday.

Stephens said she had been told the books needed to go because "they take up space."

Braid, in her interview and statements, insisted changes at Sugar Grove Nature Center would barely be perceived by the public. She said she had expected the transition to appear "seamless" since it "won't impact most visitors."

"We estimate about 30,000 visits are made to the property each year, with the vast majority being those who are coming to enjoy the trails and Imagination Grove," her statement on the board's behalf read. "With this change, those wonderful opportunities will persist."

In the wake of seemingly abrupt changes and unanswered questions, skepticism about the center's future remains — among both donors and board members like Eric Funk and Gary Huppert, who also was reached by WGLT and confirmed he had dissented.

Still, he said he remains hopeful something can be worked out. And that, too, is what is motivating Eric Funk to remain on the board despite the difficult circumstances that included the layoff of his wife.

"If I step off the board, I don't know what will happen to the Nature Center," he said. "It's a difficult position Angela and I are in."

Angela Funk, who would have marked 19 years at the Nature Center's helm this April, did not interview with WGLT, but instead shared a statement — one that also included an eye to the future.

"In my heart, I have always believed that the future of the Nature Center is vibrant. It is my hope that this unfortunate decision can eventually result in a positive outcome for the place that I love so much," she wrote.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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