CEED was co-founded by Rebecca Muellers and Ranger Eric Powers. Volunteer Monisha Rosenfeld caught up with Rebecca to ask her about creating CEED:
1) Do you remember the moment when you knew the inception of CEED and/or acquiring the legal use of the Lodge was a reality?
“There were two pivotal moments in the beginning. First was the 2016 wine and cheese event that was hosted at Pete & Jennifer (Puleston) Clement’s barn in Brookhaven Hamlet. This event introduced CEED to the community and our plans to create a nature center at the Washington Lodge. We created the logo, the name CEED and a multi-phased plan with color-coded, architectural plans to transform the Lodge into a nature center. We presented to the group that gathered, telling them about our plans to renovate the Lodge into a retreat center, provide environmental programming for all ages and that CEED would be a collaborative center for the community. Seventy-five people were in attendance, including special guest, Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine. The event was a huge success, and during a short speech, Supervisor Romaine called CEED ‘a beacon of light’ in our community. This event paved the way for Eric and I to get a meeting with the Supervisor, where we formally asked the Town for use of the Lodge as a nature center. Event attendees gave us our first donations, which continued to flow in after the event, including a $5,000 check from Yaphank-based Precision International. It was THE event that launched CEED and was most definitely a catalyst for everything else that followed!
“The next pivotal moment was when we successfully executed the license agreement with the Town of Brookhaven and were handed the keys and stewardship of the Washington Lodge. It happened a full year after the wine and cheese event, and after more than 10 months of tedious negotiation. There was a joint press conference with the Town and a celebratory dinner at Bellport’s Café Castello to mark this momentous occasion. It was truly glorious!”
2) How do you describe your feelings during the early days of it all?
“It was a roller coaster of emotions! There was so much to do and it was hard to know what to do first. We learned a lot from our mistakes, and there were many days when I felt like we took two steps forward and five steps backward. But there were also a lot of ‘wins’ and turning points that propelled the organization forward, which was exciting! Eric and I got to know each other very well and we gave each other pep talks a lot. From early on I would say, ‘It may take us awhile, but I feel it in my bones that this thing is going to happen.’”
3) What is one of the funniest moments that you recall working with Ranger Eric?
“One of the funniest moments happened after we had just managed to remove 6 raccoons that were living in the Lodge ceiling. It had been Eric’s mission to evacuate the raccoons, and one by one he made it happen just a few days before we would be hosting one of our first nature festivals. Eric was giving a tour of the Lodge, when all of a sudden Eric, his dog and the person he was touring were covered in fleas! They all went jumping and screaming out of the Lodge! It turned out that removing the raccoons also removed the hosts for the fleas, so all the fleas descended from the ceiling to find new hosts. The way Eric told the story to me afterwards was absolutely hysterical. It was so fitting at the time that despite his hard work to get rid of the raccoons, there was still one more ‘kicker’ to contend with…a flea infestation! There were so many surprises, twists and turns that we faced in those early days. But we usually triumphed in the end. We had the Lodge ‘bombed’ and there were fleas and raccoons no more!”
4) What were some of the biggest challenges or surprises with starting a non-profit?
“There were so many challenges and surprises, so it is very hard to choose just a few! When you are starting a non-profit, everything takes longer and is more work than you think it will be. Building trust in the community, fundraising, marketing, program development, networking….it all takes a lot of time and ‘people power’. And if you want to be effective, it can’t be rushed. Probably one of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to prioritize. There were so many goals and tasks that needed to be accomplished, all at once. Building a network of volunteers, finding grants, connecting with donors, developing organizational processes and infrastructure, program development and repairing the Lodge were all ‘front burner’ priorities. But in reality, there was simply a limit to our bandwidth, and funding, for getting things done. It was particularly tough with CEED, because we were building the organization at the same time we embarked on the capital project to renovate the Lodge. There has always been no shortage of great ideas and passionate people at CEED. So we have learned to prioritize and think and plan incrementally. I think it is one of the most important keys to CEED’s continued success.”
5) Was it an instantaneous decision or did the decision evolve to form the Art & Nature Group, Inc.?
“It was more of an evolution. The Art & Nature Group (ANG) originated as a program within Eric’s mobile nature education business, Your Connection to Nature (YC2N). It was structured as a school assembly that included both art and nature themed stations that student groups would visit, in a round robin style. Eric had a network of artist and environmental educator colleagues that he collaborated with, and even expanded the program to outdoor festivals. Eventually, the group decided the program would have more potential as a non-profit organization with art and nature education as its core mission. Just as Eric formed the non-profit, he and I met through a master naturalist course. We shared a mutual passion for finding a new way to deliver environmental education to Long Island, and he convinced me to join ANGs Board of Directors. It was that first Board that decided the organization needed a programmatic ‘home base’. Once we discovered the Washington Lodge, we were driven to make it our home, and Eric and I lead the charge.”
6) What about the inception of CEED?
“We created the name CEED (Center for Environmental Education & Discovery) because we thought it would better represent the organization’s programmatic goals and home. It would also translate our mission more effectively than ANG in marketing. We had so many ideas and goals for the organization. Using the words ‘art’ and ‘nature’ in the name started to feel somewhat limiting. Environmental education was a wider reaching term, and the word ‘discovery’ kept an open door to many more possibilities, which we loved. Calling it a ‘center’ also really pulled it all together in a way that evoked our collaborative and inviting nature. We also loved that CEED is pronounced like “SEED”! I’d like to give a shout out to volunteer Barbara Lindemann for her valuable input during those early name discussions!”
7) Did you have any moments when you felt overwhelmed? Scared? Excited?
“The first few festivals we had at the Lodge grounds were very exciting! We had not executed the license agreement or gotten the keys to the Lodge yet, but the Town gave us permission to host the festivals on the grounds. It was the first time we gathered at the property as an organization and invited the public to join us to celebrate and learn about nature! About 15 people gathered for the occasion. We had a fire pit, snacks, decorated a tree with nature-friendly ornaments and volunteers played music and performed a traditional antler dance in celebration of the solstice! It is awesome to think back about how far we have come since then.
“A time that felt overwhelming, scary and exciting all wrapped in one was when I decided to approach State Senator Tom Croci for a grant to help repair the Lodge. I had heard that he was offering mobile office hours to citizens at the South Country Library in Bellport. I had also heard that he had a ‘discretionary fund’ from which funds could be granted to improve and help the community. So I signed up for a 5- minute meeting (That’s all each person got with him…and it was timed!). I gave the fastest and most succinct ‘pitch’ of my life! I told Senator Croci about CEED, its mission, our plans to renovate the Lodge and asked for the State’s financial support. Much to my surprise, he said, ‘Sounds like a great project. How about $50,000?’ It was a great day for CEED, and later this year, those funds will pay for the installation of new energy saving windows on the Lodge’s first floor.”
8) Why did you pick the Washington Lodge?
“Once we decided that ANG needed a home, Eric and I drove around Long Island and looked at many different locations. Some of the opportunities required purchase of the property and/or building a structure ‘from scratch’, which was too heavy of a financial lift for the organization. And some locations were too far off a main road and not practical or accessible enough for public programming. Through a friend of a friend, Eric learned about the Washington Lodge, which was a substantial historic building sitting vacant in the beautiful hamlet of Brookhaven. While the building was in serious disrepair, contractors and engineers all indicated that the house had ‘good bones’ and we felt confident that it still had a lot of life left in it. The cavernous rooms on the first floor and many bedrooms and bathrooms throughout the building would be wonderful for all the programming we envisioned. Plus, the property is a great location right on South Country Road that was preserved with open space funding from New York State and rests on environmentally sensitive land. It includes both forest and field—offering great biodiversity. And an even larger parcel of preserved and accessible land across the street connects directly to Bellport Bay (Dennis Puleston Nature Preserve). Plus, there were several farms/CSAs in the area that we believed offered wonderful opportunity for collaboration, including Mama Farm right next door to the Lodge. When you put it all together, the Lodge and the Brookhaven community were overwhelmingly the right fit for CEED’s mission and vision.”