Spring is a time for renewal, but also offers an opportunity for reflection. As I write this letter, we have just come through one of the most difficult winters in the history of Chicago. During these welcome days of warmth and regrowth, I have taken time to reflect on myself, on my family and friends, and on the past accomplishments and future promise of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Specifically, my thoughts have turned to the importance of nurture—the process of providing care and comfort, and encouraging growth and development. The Chicago Botanic Garden is a place where nature and nurture work together, both in ways that are measurable and in ways impossible to quantify.
By every statistical measure, 2013—the fourth year of our strategic plan, “Keep Growing”—was impressive. For the first time in the Garden’s history, we welcomed more than one million visitors. We were supported by a stellar and increasingly diverse staff of 250 full-time employees and 480 “seasonals,” members of three boards, and 2,067 volunteers who gave 107,235 hours of service to the Garden. Nearly 5,000 adults took classes at the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden, and we provided programs and field trips for more than 120,000 children, parents, students, and teachers.
Our littlest learners haven’t yet started to walk; at the other end of the spectrum, in 2013 the Garden trained 28 master’s students and 11 doctoral students through our graduate program in plant conservation biology, offered in partnership with Northwestern University. We also mentored a select group of 70 Chicago Public Schools teens through our Science Career Continuum, four of whom went on to receive full scholarships to attend college.
Last year as well, more than 200 Garden scientists, graduate students, and interns conducted plant-related research, and we received our largest National Science Foundation grant to date—$1.5 million. The Garden trained nearly 100 college graduates for conservation internships in 15 western states, in partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management. Through our Windy City Harvest program, we mentored more than 90 at-risk teens and trained over 50 hard-to-employ adults; 89 percent of the latter have found employment. Last year, Windy City Harvest participants grew and harvested 92,000 pounds of produce, earning $165,000 in produce sales. Five new urban farmers began working at “incubator farm” plots in Chicago through Windy City Harvest, thanks to a grant by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA. The Garden also launched the Midwest’s largest “farm-to-fork” rooftop farm, encompassing 20,000 square feet at McCormick Place.
Yet, every day, the Chicago Botanic Garden nurtures people in ways not easily quantified. In 2013 Garden visitors listened, nodded, and danced to the varied rhythms of our musical programs. They experienced the joy of art, through Garden exhibitions and classes, through events like the Antiques & Garden Fair and the Art Festival, and through the Garden’s compelling design and horticultural excellence. People walked the Garden paths every single day in 2013, from dawn to past dusk, appreciating the Garden’s beauty, accessibility, and safety in all seasons, and increasing well-being with every step. The powerful healing effects of plants provided skills and comfort to veterans, people along the autism spectrum, and low-vision participants in the Garden’s horticultural therapy programs.
Part of nurturing and being nurtured is listening. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we can literally listen to the sounds of nature: the rustle of plants, the whisper of breezes, the trickle, spray, or bubble of water. Also, the Garden’s horticulturists and scientists listen to and monitor what plants and healthy ecosystems “tell” us they need to grow and thrive, and offer the care needed. On a larger scale, figuratively, the Garden is listening to the planet, helping to conserve, protect, and restore native habitats and the essential benefits they provide at home and around the globe.
Further, Garden members have talked to us, and we have listened, and responded. In 2010, the Garden took a public stance on the subject of climate change and other critical environmental initiatives; last year, we offered new approaches to making science come alive in the classroom, developing a new curriculum that examines the impact of climate change, and becoming the nation’s first botanic garden to hold a virtual field trip through Google’s Connected Classrooms program.
How can we ensure that the Garden will continue to nurture plants and people into the future?
I believe the answer rests in enhancing the ways we care for those who visit the Chicago Botanic Garden. After all, without our visitors—many of whom become active members, volunteers, employees, and donors like you—the Garden would not exist.
We must continue to set and achieve goals—both those that are measurable as well as those that, though powerfully effective, don’t translate into statistics. In 2013, partly to encompass these distinct yet complementary goals, we adopted a new mission statement: We cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life.
To fulfill this mission, we must invest in the Garden, through the measurable commitment of our financial support and through the priceless value of our presence in the Garden family as participants, advisors, mentors, and innovators.
We must grow our endowment to four times our operating budget, and complete the remaining projects of our “Keep Growing” strategic plan:
- The Kris Jarantoski Campus will feature expanded plant production facilities and an innovative garden that will allow us to continue growing and caring for the plants that inspire us, and serve our scientists in their conservation research.
- The Learning Campus will be complete when the Education Center and new garden take shape, and will greatly expand our ability to offer both familiar and new ways of inspiring and training through science, environmental sustainability, and horticulture.
Our goals are ambitious, yet grounded in thoughtful and thorough planning. We have faced some very challenging times, such as the recession that began in 2008, and persevered—just as we have emerged from last winter’s “polar vortex” stronger and more positive than before. We remain, as always, grateful to the Forest Preserves of Cook County, our greatest supporter and recipient of the 2013 Hutchinson Medal.
Ten years from now, we will look back at this time as a period when we reflected on our progress, celebrated our success, articulated our belief in the power of nature to nurture, accepted our responsibility to nurture nature, and vowed to complete the goals that we set for ourselves in our “Keep Growing” strategic plan.
On behalf of the Chicago Botanic Garden,
President & CEO