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Cecil County Life

Fair Hill’s new leader

Jun 29, 2022 01:51PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Ken Mammarella
Contributing Writer

In Laura Hannan’s first month as the Fair Hill Nature Center and Environmental Foundation’s first full-time executive director, she made a wish list that included a vacuum cleaner. That’s because she thought its vacuum might date back to when its headquarters was built – 75 years ago.

She has a long list of wishes, priorities and tasks. “Every day, you have eight or 10 things things that you need to do, and I take maybe one thing off the list,” she said. “Then add about 17.”

Her first priority is increasing awareness of the center, the foundation and the outdoors. “In this day and age, where people can’t get together, and kids are relying on technology more and more often for their entertainment and for their learning, we are still dedicated to getting kids outside and connecting them to the environment that they live in,” she said. “That’s so important because we hope we end up with a future generation of stewards who understand what is so important about Cecil County.”

She is planning a general fundraising campaign and a capital campaign. The wish list offers suggestions for people who like to make tangible donations, such as hats and gloves for schoolchildren who come unprepared for outdoor learning and coffee for teachers and bus drivers.

She also wants to improve its building (carefully, since it’s historic); go to more schools in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania; have regular public hours; and host more community programs.

One such program will be in yoga. Hannan has run a yoga studio in Elkton and savors the effect of hatha yoga several times a week. “Focus on your breath and have a little bit of fun,” she said. “Honestly, it helps keep you limber and strong.”

A lifetime of Fair Hill experiences

Hannan’s new job builds on a lifetime with Fair Hill, first as a young student visitor, then a parent of participants and a year and half on its board of directors.

“I’ve always loved the nature center,” she said. “I went to North East Elementary, Middle and High. I came to the nature center as a kid, and I’ve just always loved this institution.”

Her last job was a vice president and senior government banker for M&T Bank in Wilmington, focused on government lending. “I covered this area, and they like to see us involved in the community. I really wanted to make sure it was a Cecil County nonprofit that I was involved with.”

After almost a year of strategic planning, the board decided it needed a full-time executive director to handle the fundraising, marketing, business operations and community outreach needed to build upon its decades of programming, said board chair Polly Binns.

“I started to see all kinds of ways where I could add value,” Hannan said, citing relationships with local governments and school districts, 18 years in banking and her business administration degree.

The job was posted. Multiple people applied. Several candidates interviewed. Hannan was hired.

“She has a great background in business development, which is critical, plus an entrepreneurial bent,” Binns said of Hannan. “She has an incredible network in three states, and she knows everyone in Cecil County,” partly from her work at the Cecil County Public Library Business Information Center. “And she’s passionate about our mission of environmental education and vitamin N,” she said, with the N referring to Nature.

Six animal ambassadors

The timeline on starts in 1608, with Europeans exploring the area. The first major event for its site is in 1926, when William du Pont Jr. bought the first farm that became his Fair Hill estate. In 1944-1945, Italian stone masons built the hunting lodge that now houses the center.

In 1974, his heirs sold the 5,700-acre Fair Hill property to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, with 2,000 adjacent acres sold to a neighbor in Pennsylvania. In 1989, Ralph Young and Linda Bystrak conceived the idea for the private nonprofit, operating on land in the Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area. It opened in 1990.

The center today has a staff of two full-time people (Hannan and education and program director Lisa Ham), six part-time educators and six animal ambassadors. They all have duties in Fair Hill and in outreach programming.

The animal ambassadors are Bernate, a box turtle; Spot, a diamondback terrapin; Ruby, a red-eared slider; Jake, a corn snake; Kai, a king snake; and Axel, an axolotl.

Bernate is the title character in “A Winter’s Tail,” the center’s first book, about surviving winter (his name is a riff on “hibernate”).

“Spot is our most engaging ambassador. She loves people. Every time someone comes over to her enclosure, she gets out of her pond to say ‘hi.’ She’s so active and so beautiful.” During the interview, Spot performs on cue when Hannan walks over. (Alas, no food reward: Spot is on a strict diet.)

All those activities

The center offers a dozen summer camps, eight science field trips for students, six outreach programs, varied events (including the Fox Trot 5K, annual Trail Clean-Up Days, Fire Fly Fling and Frog Frenzy), five themed birthday parties and plus traveling naturalists. Its educators see more than 5,000 elementary students from Cecil County schools each year.

Hannan’s son Jack, 8, is a veteran of programming by the center at Fair Hill, including a full summer of weekly camps, which he graded B+. To earn a higher grade, he suggested that the camps have more “action stuff,” such as the tubing, hiking, playing sports and encountering animals that he has enjoyed – and maybe even overnighting there, which would be new.

He became very animated during a Zoom interview when discussing the animals he saw at camp, including the center’s animal ambassadors, foxes, ducks, geese and a giant snapping turtle.

His sister Tori, 6, whose Fair Hill experiences have been largely informal, is looking forward to camp this summer, now that she’s old enough.

Important partners include Cecil College for the summer camps and the Boy Scouts. Scout leader Tom Pahutski is on the board; his Troop 302 meets and volunteers there; and Eagle Scouts have built benches, signs and pavilions. The center and the Scouts also work together to grow and release brook trout.

“I couldn’t be happier. This has changed my life,” Hannan said, partly contrasting her old commute from Landenberg (where she lives with her husband Tim and their children) to the one now. “My job is to connect kids in the community to nature. I just I feel blessed, and I work with a tremendous group of people.”

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