Like many nonprofits, IslandWood has been decimated by restrictions inflicted by COVID-19. They had to lay off more than 60 employees and shut down many programs.
However, IslandWood, one of many nonprofits helped with funding by donations to the Bainbridge Community Foundation, has found new ways to engage with the community.
One is to provide public meals every Wednesday night. Director Megan Karch said the dinners are not just for people in need. “We hope it helps parents who are tired of cooking at home,” she said, adding people can donate if they want.
By providing the meals, Karch has been able to keep on some cooking staff. “It helps us with a little revenue and provides a few jobs,” she said.
Normally, the kitchen and staff provides meals for school overnight events that can’t happen now due to COVID. “We don’t really have stayovers, so we looked for other ways to keep employees and help the community,” Karch said.
She said they don’t offer meals that people can purchase elsewhere on the island. “We want them to stick around,” she said of restaurants. “Some are really struggling.”
Karch said they post the menu on their website every Monday, and people start ordering meals for pickup Wednesday. They usually sell out of their 100 meals. However, people can also purchase pre-packaged meals to use anytime during the week. She personally buys the homemade bagels weekly, she said.
A program IslandWood has back this fall that is more in line with their overall mission is their outside after school Ecologists Program for third- through sixth-graders. “We want to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards and philanthropy,” she said.
Karch said they plan to continue the program this winter. “There’s no such thing as bad weather,” she said. “Just bad gear” so they make sure they have raincoats, boots and gloves for students.
Karch said their goal is to provide outdoor school for all so the ability to pay depends on a sliding scale. “We were founded to provide access to nature for kids who might otherwise not” have access, she said.
Prior to the coronavirus, schools from King, Snohomish and Pierce counties also participated, but now the students are mostly from Bainbridge Island. Students attend from 3-5 p.m. daily, except 1-5 p.m. Fridays.
Karch said kids like many different things about the environmental school. Some just like to hang out with friends, enjoying the suspension bridge, tree houses and replica of the old lumber mill house at Blakely Harbor. Others just enjoy being outside. And others like exploring something new and exciting to them, like slugs, knewts and ferns.
The teachings at IslandWood are aligned with what kids learn in school. “They learn about nature, the world around them and their place in it,” Karch said, adding critical thinking is an important aspect of that.
But with kids mostly at home taking school online, Karch said the most important thing is their time together. “It’s social and emotional, spending time with other kids. They’re not getting that. Really what we work on with kids is helping them collaborate, problem solve and be environmental stewards.”
IslandWood program manager Breanna Caruso agreed about the social aspect.
“They are more excited now than ever,” she said of students coming there and learning.
Rachel Samuelian, communications manager, said her daughter is one of those students.
“She’s out here with all her friends and not learning on the computer,” Samuelian said.
Caruso, a former intern and grad student at IslandWood, said the social aspect of school has been missing the past few months. So the kids are thriving in this environment.
“Lots of kids are new to the island,” she said, adding she knows of at least one student whose parents set up a playdate after meeting at IslandWood.
She said kids from Seattle often get the most out of the experience. Some have never walked in the forest, looked at wild plants and animals, walked across a wobbly suspension bridge, been in a beautifully wood-crafted treehouse, got their hands dirty placing plants in a garden.
Caruso said she thinks some of the students are learning to be better listeners at the school.
“They can play with grass and listen at the same time,” she said. “It’s relaxing for a kid.”
Besides those programs, IslandWood offers many others:
• It works with school districts virtually. “They put us into their daily curriculum,” Karsh said.
• They offer small weddings for up to 30 people, along with small corporate retreats. “We have the ability to space people out,” such as outdoor next to a fire, she said.
• Since their normal daytime school is closed, they are allowing hiking on the 255-acre property. Reservations are taken to keep the numbers down to a safe level.
• They have converted in-person teacher professional development classes to online. “They’re more popular than ever,” Karch said. “We get educators from all over.”
• Graduate students are back on site, with limitations, after having to switch to online last spring.
• Last summer’s youth programs were scaled back so kids could attend safely.
• They allow Peacock’s Nature Nuts program to explore their campus. Karsh said they believe in sharing their facility. “The safest place to educate kids is outside,” she said, adding there is a huge push worldwide for outdoor preschools.
IslandWood is providing all that without half of its staff. “We do a lot with a small and mighty staff,” Karch said.
She said about 35 percent of its funding comes from its annual fundraiser, with other monies coming from school and parents fees, endowments and a small amount from government.
Karch, who has been with the private nonprofit for 2½ years, said they saw the impact of the coronavirus very early, before Gov. Jay Inslee starting shutting down everything.
“Our revenue dropped literally ninety percent overnight,” she said, adding they wanted to pivot and be innovative so they could help the community “where it was needed most.”