The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance Adapts to COVID-19 Impacts

Jaylin and Diavionne, members of the Urban Roots Teen Docent program


While Accion Serving Illinois & Indiana’s typical client is a small for-profit business, we also help nonprofits seeking capital, coaching and connections to grow their organizational capacity. Accion has administered multiple programs during the COVID-19 pandemic that have provided support for nonprofits, including the City of Chicago’s Together Now Fund. One such nonprofit that benefitted from this grant program is the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance.


In addition to helping nonprofits through our services, Accion values our relationships with community-focused organizations like the Alliance who donate produce to the Garfield Park Neighborhood Market on The Hatchery’s plaza. We are grateful for their partnership and look forward to continuing to work together to bring resources to the Garfield Park community.


In the first quarter of 2020, the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance was celebrating one of the most successful years in the organization’s 22-year history with record attendance and revenue generation, significant membership growth, a robust schedule of public program offerings, and a new strategic plan to propel its mission “to change lives through the power of nature.”


That momentum seemed to come to a screeching halt in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit and the Garfield Park Conservatory, an historic botanical landmark within the Chicago park system, was forced to close. As the not-for-profit partner charged with public programming and audience engagement at the Conservatory, the Alliance was faced with a number of challenges that required a fundamental shift in the way they operated.


“For years our program model had focused on driving attendance to the Conservatory,” said Alliance President & CEO Jennifer Van Valkenburg. “With our facility closed we suddenly had to flip our thinking and figure out how to take the Conservatory to the public.”


Alliance staff quickly began adapting programs and outreach activities to focus on new digital and remote ways to engage the Conservatory’s constituents – from school-age children to plant and gardening enthusiasts to members and donors. This included new online educational content for families and parents, digital tours, classes and lectures, and significantly increasing their social media presence. For example, they converted on-site field trip experiences into digital materials and made them available to educators and caretakers who had assumed the role of teacher at home. Moving into the new school year, they will offer field trips remotely, allowing teachers and students to access a staff-guided tour from their home or classroom.


GPCA staff harvesting produce for West Side community donations


The Conservatory’s own neighborhood of East Garfield Park was particularly affected by COVID-19, as well as the nationwide reckoning with racial injustice. To support their community, they used enhanced digital platforms to promote community clean-ups and food drives in neighborhoods surrounding the Conservatory, connected their audience to social service agencies responding to the needs of the community, and donated Conservatory-grown produce to local food banks.


The Urban Roots Teen Docent program trains and employs students from Al Raby High School, located across the street from the Conservatory. Their journey begins with a paid internships over the summer as they learn about plants and then develop tours for visiting school children. Due to the pandemic, the program went virtual this summer, with the teens working remotely to develop podcasts and virtual tours of the Conservatory. The teens have shown tremendous resilience as well as vulnerability at a time when they are living through a pandemic, a recession, civic unrest, and heightened violence in their neighborhood. The Alliance plans on recruiting a new cohort this fall, and are working out the logistics of joining some of the sophomore classes remotely to promote the program and recruit new participants.


“There’s no doubt that the past six months have been challenging,” Van Valkenburg said. “However, some of those challenges have created opportunities for greater creativity and innovation, allowing us to rethink traditional approaches and experiment with new ideas for engaging our audiences.”


While the Conservatory’s interior spaces remain closed and public programming has been suspended through Dec. 31, 2020, the Alliance and their partner the Chicago Park District, which owns the Conservatory and maintains the botanical collections, have been working to maximize the Conservatory’s outdoor space for public use. The Conservatory’s 10 acres of outdoor gardens opened to the public July 1, ensuring access to this vital outdoor asset for the local community and visitors from around the city who are eager to connect with nature during the current public health crisis.


While the Alliance is anxiously awaiting the time when they can reopen the Conservatory’s renowned indoor collections to the public, they are taking care to note the achievements they have made in the face of unprecedented challenges.


“We’ve really learned some valuable lessons and developed a number of new tools that will serve our mission, our constituents and our community well past the life of the pandemic,” Van Valkenburg said.


The Alliance has seen a significant reduction in revenue due to the pandemic. They were awarded a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan through the CARES Act, which supported the salaries of 13 fulltime and 10 part-time staff for 2.5 months. However, the duration of the pandemic and the Conservatory’s closure continues to put a strain on their operating budget. The Alliance is grateful to Accion and the City of Chicago’s Together Now Fund for recognizing the impact of the pandemic on the nonprofit community. These funds will help them maintain staff and deliver on their mission in digital and remote ways until they are able to reopen to the public.


To support the Alliance, consider donating to their annual fund or plan a visit to the Conservatory’s outdoor gardens, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday – Sunday. There are new procedures in place to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for visitors, including a ticketed registration system to limit capacity and ensure proper social distancing. While there is no admission to the Conservatory, they welcome donations.


The Flowers of Monet outdoor exhibit. Photo credit: Brian Kinyon Photography


Visitors can also experience the special outdoor exhibit, The Flowers of Monet. Running through the fall season, this exhibit features displays of sunflowers, dahlias, wheat, water lilies and more to interpret some of the French Impressionist’s most notable landscape paintings. This display complements The Art Institute of Chicago’s current exhibit Monet and Chicago. Admission to this special exhibit is $5 for adults; free for children, members and local neighbors.