The Joe Ford Nature Center was hit with a double whammy in 2020. It yielded to the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited public access to the center, and its executive director, Debra Branch, retired at the end of the year.

But with summer around the corner, the center’s board of director’s is hoping to fill the position soon and get the center back running to its pre-pandemic days.

Branch retired in December 2020 and had been in the position since June 2017, according to the center’s website. Since her retirement, the board has kept the position open.

Mike Robinson, vice chair of the Nature Center’s board, said Branch retiredto spend more time with her husband, who also retired from his job.

“She wanted to be more available for him so they could travel and things like that,” he said.

With the position empty, the center’s board is advertising it as being the “face of the organization, responsible for giving the proper strategic direction and implementing a high-quality vision,” and they will “oversee all operations, functions and activities” of the center. This means the hired candidate will handle the financial, general day-to-day and programming requirements of the center.

While the position has been open for nearly five months, the center’s board wasn’t in a hurry to fill the position immediately due to the COVID-19 pandemic restricting limited access to the center, Robinson said. Instead of hiring a director with nothing to do during the restrictions, which served as a cost-savings measure for the park since it’s a non-profit organization and receives money from donations and grants, their focus was to work on the park’s exterior.

Thanks to a grant that Branch secured before she retired, volunteers were able to work on the trails while the center was under restrictions.

“With the volunteers’ help, we’ve been able to widen them, clean them up and cut away some of the stuff and debris that’s on the trails,” Robinson said.

With more pleasant weather arriving, Robinson said he expects the trails will be used more than before.

In addition to the trail improvements, physical development stations were installed along the trails. These range from stretching exercise stations to resting benches.

The board’s target date to fill the position is this spring or summer. When it’s filled, Robinson said he hopes the new executive director will write articles that will focus on the center and gain it more attention when its restrictions are lifted. He’d also like to see the selected candidate come up with and implement nature-related activities for children such as scavenger hunts, identifying plants and spotting natural items on the trails.

With Branch spending more than three years as the center’s executive director, Robinson said she was an excellent director.

“She made the community aware. She put articles in the newsletter and held events, and we really hated to see her leave. But people need to do other things sometimes, and she’ll be hard to replace,” he said.

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