The butterfly effect

A painted lady butterfly rests on a leaf in the butterfly pavilion at Elkton Community Education Center earlier this week. This butterfly was one of about a dozen painted ladies flying around the facility. Photo by Zach Silva/CG Sentinel.

Center in Elkton offers more than just butterflies to those who stop by

There really isn’t much in Elkton.

Driving down the Umpqua Hwy., it’s easy to blink and miss the town of almost 200. There’s a few restaurants, a couple wineries, the high school and then you’re out of town in either direction. But tucked just past the middle school, there is a sign. More accurately, there are a handful of signs. There is a sign for the butterfly pavilion, one advertising the native plant nursery and others with butterflies on them.

All who drive by have been tempted by what this group, Elkton Community Education Center (ECEC), has to offer. The sign of this local nonprofit that simply states “Park Entrance” and features a butterfly has brought in scores of individuals passing by for the past two decades. And around 5,000 visitors last year.

That is certainly no accident as the unofficial slogan for ECEC seems to be simple: come for the butterflies, stay for the community.

The curious travelers who have wandered to ECEC’s 30-acres of land are also supporting the local employment opportunities that the group provides. And the tourism this organization brings across the town – all while receiving a first-class education on the flora across Oregon, the history of Fort Umpqua and, of course, the chance to see, and learn about, butterflies.

After Carol Beckley was diagnosed with cancer about 30 years ago, she was told by her doctor that she wasn’t going to live. After a year of chemotherapy, the doctors said the cancer would return. So Beckley decided it was time to get out of Elkton.

“Everybody looked at me sad and I couldn’t take that any longer. And so I bought an RV that looked most like our farm truck and I left town,” said an enthusiastic 84-year-old Beckley earlier this summer. Having taught in Elkton for 17 years, and having lived in town since she was four, the diagnosis made her ready for some change. With her partner Jim at her side, the two drove around the country – stopping at each butterfly pavilion that they passed – for about four years going wherever the wind took them.

But throughout the long trips and in all the stops along the way, something was missing.

“I said, ‘I can’t make a life like this. We have to do something meaningful,’” Beckley remembers telling Jim. So they packed up and made their way back to Elkton, ready to start fresh.

The first step in this process was looking at a piece of property that had just gone up for sale: 30 acres of sheep pasture right along the Umpqua Hwy. The man selling the property was looking for $350,000 for the land but, in a rush to get to his next property, ended up cutting his asking price by over 40 percent and sold the land to Beckley for $200,000.

At the time of the purchase, the first item of business for Beckley was establishing a preschool on the property to fill the need of the community. After that, she knew she wanted to do something with plants. And maybe fulfill a lifelong dream of hers.

“I always had this dream of having all this representative flora of Oregon on our ranch. I was going to have it and then I thought well, no one will ever see it anyhow,” said Beckley. With this new property she had visions of having a plant park and began working – with the help of student volunteers – on flower beds.

Like seemingly all of Beckley’s ideas, it came to fruition. The plants came in and have been continuing to grow for two decades now. But there was just one problem.

“No one stopped. No one stopped at all,” said Beckley. Reflecting on her own traveling habits, Beckley was reminded of all the butterfly pavilions she had visited. “Everywhere we went, we went to butterfly pavilions. And I said, ‘You know what? If we had butterflies, people would stop.’”

Needing to learn more about butterflies, Beckley hopped on a plane to New Jersey – “Or maybe it was Connecticut,” she says as she thinks of the memory – to learn more about this animal. She had found information online about a guy who knew how to care for butterflies and went to learn from him. After learning all she could, she wound up in Ashland to get milkweed – the lifeline of butterflies – in addition to butterfly eggs that soon turned into hundreds of butterflies.

“People started stopping in just to see what that was about. And in the meantime, because there’s 30 acres and because this community is innovative and they have passions of their own, they started putting their passions to work,” said Beckley.

With Beckley comfortable with bringing community members onto the land, the property began to flourish. There was someone in town who was a landscapist and he ended up donating 500 trees. Then there was a group of passionate individuals who created a replica of Fort Umpqua – a trading post built by Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1800s. There was also interest in a library, a café and even some local art was donated as well.

The answer to all these questions on whether or not it could be included was a resounding yes from Beckley. The community came to her with these skills and she wanted to share them with everyone else.

“Because this community is innovative and they have passions of their own, they started putting their passions to work,” said Beckley.

Much like plants across the property, ECEC began to bloom. The ambitious ideas became staples at ECEC. This once sprawling 30-acres of sheep pasture now has a little of everything. There is the butterfly pavilion, native plant nursery, Fort Umpqua, produce stand and the library. The seven climate zones of Oregon are represented, plants and produce are sold, tours are given to schools and weddings are hosted.

What started with a sign getting people to give the area a second look has turned into an institution in the community. With a sprinkling of good luck, skill that transcends what is typically found in a town the size of Elkton and a lot of hard work, the group at ECEC has gone above and beyond. Did Beckley even think all this was possible?

“Not in a million years,” she said. “Not in a million years.”

Driving to the coast with her dog, Marjory Hamann was lost in thought. Hamann, who has a background in nonprofit management and community development, was thinking specifically about looking into nonprofits south of Cottage Grove.

“Literally as I had that thought, I drove by that sign,” said Hamann, referencing ECEC’s butterfly sign. “And I said, ‘Like this place! That’s obviously a nonprofit.”

She continued to drive by and on the return trip, was again, drawn in.

“On my way back I saw a sign for a native plant nursery and thought, oh, I should just check it out. I come around a bend in the road and it’s this place. So at that point it was like clearly, clearly I have to be here,” said Hamann.

After that, Hamann began volunteering her time at ECEC. This random stranger stopping in became the answer to Beckley’s prayers.

“Here comes this lady that wants to help, she asks me if she can help me weed. So she was there every Tuesday for a while and I kept saying, ‘You know, I’m to the age where I’m going to have to stop weeding and back off of this but who would want this job?’ And she said, ‘I would,’” recalls Beckley. “She has 20 years of experience in a nonprofit and she was on the board of the nonprofit organization for the whole state of Oregon. It was amazing.”

And while Beckley was thrilled to have Hamann on board, the feeling was most certainly mutual.

“What attracted me to ECEC was the amazing community support and the people that came together to make this happen in a town of 200 people. It’s amazing,” said Hamann.

With experience in this line of work and a love for Elkton, Hamann, who was named executive director in 2014, worked to continue to grow ECEC while focusing on the three pillars that are at the core of the organization: community, youth employment and tourism.

“I have heard so many people say that they found their community by coming to ECEC. They joined the knitters or joined a book club or something like that. They come to events,” said Hamann. In a small town, ECEC is often the place to be.

For youth employment, ECEC hires around 15 Elkton High School students each year to work in the summer. The jobs vary and include everything from working at the café to serving as a tour guide. This has been central to ECEC since its inception.

“We’re isolated and those kids from 14-18 have no place to work. I really believe in work. I have a big thing about work ethic,” said Beckley. “I tell them bring an empty skill basket and we’ll fill it up. They can work here. It’s an education as well as meeting the public, that’s the biggest thing, probably.”

The final piece, tourism, has been steadily growing over the years in Elkton. ECEC is funded about equally via grants, donations and earned income. But to grow as a tourism destination, for Hamann, this means people who visit stopping at not just ECEC but all around town. Grabbing lunch, visiting a winery or planning a fishing trip in the future.

“In the past I would say we’re a community center that had a positive economic ripple. What we’re trying to shift into is being a rural economic development organization that happens to operate as a community center,” said Hamann. “I look at everything we do through that lens: how are we bringing more people to town, how are we encouraging them to connect with the other businesses in town, how are we generating opportunities to make money through what we do.”

While Hamann began as an especially knowledgeable volunteer, that is now a role that is played by Barbara Slott. Slott, who has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Wildlife Biology from the University of Montana, was looking for a way to get involved in the community. After moving a couple miles away from ECEC, she decided to see what it was all about. 

“I filled out a little card… figuring I’ll be pulling weeds or watering plants, I didn’t know. And then Marjory, our executive director is very good at matching peoples interest, skills, background with what’s needed here,” said Slott. “She said ‘Oh, and what are your passions now?’ It’s still nature. And she said, ‘Well, one of the volunteer positions we would love to fill is the volunteer butterfly steward. And I was like, what’s that?”

At ECEC the butterfly steward is in charge of all things butterflies. This is everything from caring for the caterpillars to giving presentations to groups that come through. Slott was intrigued, said yes and promptly went about learning all she could about this animal. She approached one of the high schoolers who was giving tours about the butterflies and had them tell her all she knew and from there she learned all she could online, read books and connected with butterfly enthusiasts.

Now in her fifth year as volunteer butterfly steward, she is still learning but has a firm grasp on this exciting creature. At ECEC, Slott takes care of painted lady and monarch butterflies – natives to the area and on this particular day, there was just one butterfly in the pavilion as they were between generations.

But as butterfly populations globally ebb and flow – with more ebbing then flowing as of late – they have continued to be the draw at ECEC which has led to opportunities across the park. The butterflies, and ECEC, have provided Elkton with a lot to offer.

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