Local Organizations and COVID-19: New Canaan Nature Center


For today’s Q&A with the head of a local organization, we talk to Bill Flynn, executive director of the New Canaan Nature Center. 

Here’s our interview. 

Bill Flynn. Credit: Sam Stoner

New Canaanite: The trails at New Canaan Nature Center recently reopened. What are your overall operations like right now?

Bill Flynn: Currently, because we are a public park, the trails are open. So people can come and visit the Nature Center on the trails, maintaining social distancing. Our buildings are currently closed. The Visitors Center is not open, the preschool is not operating. We are running none of our programs on site except for doing some virtual programming that we are focusing on.

You are a nonprofit organization. That doesn’t mean you don’t hurt with these restrictions in place. Tell me how is the Nature Center faring through this?

We are struggling like everybody else. We are not operating any of our revenue streams currently. So we are hurting. With the preschool, we are trying to do the best e-learning we can for the preschoolers, but that is very difficult given their age group. So teachers are providing activities for them but it is very hard. We did offer some tuition reimbursement to our families because they could not be here. We did secure our PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan which definitely helped, but we were not able to run our spring luncheon, which is our biggest fundraiser by far. Many nonprofits could not do their spring fundraisers and that is a big hurt for not only the Nature Center but nonprofits around town. Upwards of 10% of our annual revenue comes from that one fundraiser. 

So, understanding that we are unsure of exactly how long all of the restrictions will be in place, what is your vision or hope for the Nature Center over the next several months?

We had a few phases in mind. One is to get through the end of the preschool year, which we are almost there, and we implemented our plan and the PPP loan helped get us to this point. The next phase is summer camp, and the governor just announced that we can start June 29th, and we are currently making a plan in order to open then but we still—it being a month-and-a-half away and how this virus moves—we have no idea what a month-and-a-half from now looks like. So we are planning on opening but there’s no final call on how to do that. We are just getting things in order so that it is safe. They are limiting how many campers and counselors there are and requiring them to wear masks. So, summer camps can run, but they will look different. There are others figuring out how to best do this. The next real big milestone is the start of the preschool year. Right now, we assume that we can run the preschool as we have, but as this virus changes and moves through time, we just don’t know. But we are still going to plan as if, in the fall, we will have preschool open and running as usual. Those are the biggest steps. We are working in phases and small chunks of time because we cannot predict what will happen in two months. 

So your have reopened recently in terms of trail-walking. What is your sense of how compliant New Canaanites have been with social distancing and other safeguards? 

I live here, so I’m spending a lot of time on our trails and for many of the people, they move aside on the trails. I think the Nature Center is a place to go for more of a secluded hike anyway so I think the people coming here are looking for a different feel from Irwin and Waveny. So most are. Of course we’ve seen families gather here and all the kids are playing together. There are a lot of people who do the right thing. Some may not agree and do not follow the protocols and that is the way it is. But for the most part we’ve seen people do a good job. 

What about the staff at the Nature Center. You mentioned that your revenue streams have been eliminated for now. Are they on payroll? 

They are still on payroll . My first goal was to keep people on health insurance so we can endure this. It’s a health crisis. The second goal was to keep people on payroll and the PPP loan really helps us do that. Once we get through the forgiveness period, then we will have to match up with what our programming looks like. Unemployment is fine and helps people but it’s not 100% of salary and a lot of people who work here depend on that for mortgages and bills. I don’t want to see anyone suffer finically through this because the Nature Center is not able to pay them. Eventually it may be a reality but so far we can keep 100% of salary and benefits, and we will maintain that as long as possible and hopefully get things moving safely in the near future.

What is your message as the head of the Nature Center for the wider New Canaan community, including for those accustomed to visiting the Nature Center and attending programs?

Right now, something that we have not talked about and something that makes me proud of the Nature Center is what we have been able to accomplish—and it’s really what the Nature Center can do to help everyone through this crisis—our skill set is education and we have been working with the New Canaan Public Schools, creating educational videos that line up with their students. And they have been using them in their e-learning and gotten good feedback. Also we have programs that we run with New Canaan Library and Lapham Community Center, and since we are here, we are doing those free of charge currently. It is a skill we have and that we can help out with and hopefully we are making an impact to have some things to look forward to and have a nice educational experience, meeting some animals and breaking up the e-learning a little bit hopefully. So that is one thing to know. The other message I have is that we are not the direct need right now. So with the emergency, we need to support our healthcare workers, to support our first responders, and to help people get basic needs like food. We are going need at the Nature Center our community’s support. Let’s try to move past health crisis and once we are through that, organizations like the Nature Center will really need community support to get going again, so that we can provide what we have in the past. Because right now we do not have revenue streams, so we are tapping coffers earmarked to maintain and improve things. So that is my message: Don’t forget us down the road and we will be here for what we can.

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