Underhill State Park in northern Vermont. Photo Credit: Vermont State Parks
Established in 2013, Vermont Parks Forever (VPF) is a small nonprofit with big ambitions. As a fundraising organization, they set out to raise money for the Vermont State Park system and to enhance the visitor experience in 55 parks across the state. Each year, close to one million people visit Vermont State Parks and those numbers have no indication of falling. In fact, over the past ten years, visitation has increased 47% as more people head to the parks to camp, hike or swim.
To accommodate the growing needs of visitors, the park system requires visitors to pay a low entrance fee of $4 for adults per day and $2 or less for children. Keeping those fees affordable is just one of the goals that VPF focuses on.
“The parks system is a very lean operation,” said VPF Executive Director Sarah Alberghini Winters. “They charge a very small amount to keep the parks in good shape, but their needs are always higher. Enhancing the visitor experience and keeping the parks accessible is critical to our work.”
Leading a $1.5 Million Project to Enhance Park Nature Centers
The biggest project VPF is working on right now is “Natural Connections,” where, in partnership with the parks and ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, VPF is gathering $1.5 million to redesign and restore nature centers at six parks throughout the park system.
Two of the centers they are focusing on initially are located in the Groton State Forest, east of Montpelier, and in Button Bay State Park near Lake Champlain. The Groton Nature Center is visited each year by more than 75,000 people and the Button Bay Nature Center has welcomed park visitors since the 1960’s; both are in need of some updates. Through raising a combined $576,000 for these two centers, VPF and partners hope to install updated, interactive displays and communication tools that allow visitors to explore themes such as local park resources, geography, plant and animal life, and water systems.
Helping 100 Foster Families Visit State Parks
As for entry fees to the park, VPF feels that even modest fees can create barriers, especially for underserved communities. One of the ways in which they help lessen that barrier is by raising funds each year to provide park passes to 100 Vermont foster families through the Vermont Department of Children and Families (DCF).
The state of Vermont provides foster children with free park passes each year. A few years ago, there was a funding shortfall and DCF was no longer able to provide the same amount of passes for foster families. VPF stepped up and now annually raises $3,000 a year to help fill the funding gap and ensure that foster children can explore the parks together with their foster families.
Alberghini Winters credited the state parks system with suggesting this fundraising opportunity to help foster families.
“We work closely with the parks so that’s how we got connected with DCF two years ago. Our partners at Parks saw that there was a funding need and knew that we were there to help raise money for the cause.”
Rebuilding the Iconic Stone Hut
VPF also answered the call to help in 2016, when a well-known Civilian Conservation Corps structure burned to the ground on December 24, 2015. By reaching out to donors, they raised more than $160,000 to rebuild the Stone Hut and helped ensure it was open for reservations in less than a year.
The Stone Hut after it was rebuilt. Photo Credit: Vermont Parks Forever, Facebook page.
Alberghini Winters said she has found that donors in the area are generous because they are committed to the parks and want them to succeed.
“People in Vermont are so loyal to the parks and we identify with these places. These parks belong to all of us and Vermonters understand that by giving to VPF, they are supporting our treasured natural places where everyone is welcome.”
Craig Whipple, Director of Vermont State Parks, also explained that the benefit of having VPF as a partner is that they can capture people’s enthusiasm for the parks.
“Spending time with friends and family outdoors has multiple values at multiple levels to people, whether it’s a place for them to relax or to rejuvenate and de-stress from everyday life. The value of having a nonprofit partner is the ability to capture people’s interest and capture donations that help transform the park system.”
Concentrating on Nonprofit Sustainability
As the only staff person for VPF, Alberghini Winters said that the organization is keeping an eye on its capacity. While there is an abundance of interest in Vermont to support the parks and a passion within the organization to pursue a variety of projects, VPF also wants to ensure that it can continue its existing work that benefits park visitors across the state. Currently, the organization is in the process of hiring a part-time Executive Assistant to help with communication and development efforts and looks forward to sustainably increasing its impact.
To learn more about Vermont Parks Forever, visit their website at http://vermontparksforever.org.