The Blue Ridge Wildlife Center has appointed its first-ever executive director. Stepping down as executive director at the Clarke County Historical Association, Jennifer Lee is stepping up to the job of orchestrating the next chapter in BRWC’s history.
“I’m leaving CCHA at the end of May and starting as BRWC’s Director in June,” Lee said on a recent Spring afternoon. “BRWC is an organization I’ve long been passionate about and we are embarking on a $650,000 capital campaign to build a new facility. The existing facility is a tiny 18th-century house and the demands for BRWC’s services have well-surpassed it.”
By all accounts, BRWC’s biggest challenge has been keeping up with its own success. The combination of development and habitat loss in northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley has translated into a 700% increase in demand for the Center’s services over the last seven years according to Lee. This year BRWC will assist approximately 1,500 injured, orphaned and sick wild animals from northern Virginia, eastern West Virginia and Washington, DC. Thousands more animals are helped by advice given via BRWC’s telephone hotline and educational events.
“BRWC is at a critical time in its growth with steadily increasing demands for its services, but not enough money, staff, or a large enough facility to meet all these needs,” said Dr. Belinda Burwell, founder of the Center. “Jennifer joined BRWC’s board of directors in 2011 and then offered to become our executive director to assist with this growth. Her experience at CCHA and her work as a board member have proven to us that she will be a perfect fit for this organization.”
Burwell says that BRWC’s current facility, an 800-square-foot, 210-year-old cottage with structural problems, cannot be expanded prompting the Center to build a new facility next door.
“Jennifer is going to help the BRWC raise the money for this building,” Burwell said.
However, Burwell’s statement may not fully capture the magnitude of the task facing the new team. While Burwell, a veterinarian, is mending hurt animals, Lee’s job will be making the financial rain that BRWC needs in order to reach and help more animals. The partnership is certain to take both women into challenging new professional territory; more patients for Burwell, development of a reliable community-based funding network by Lee.
“We have plans to build a new 4,000 square foot facility on the property where the current center is outside of Millwood,” Lee said. “The new facility will contain surgery and treatment rooms, nurseries for orphaned wildlife, an education classroom, and public viewing areas that will allow people to see the animals in various stages of treatment and recovery. This will be a huge asset for the patients, the staff, the volunteers, and the general public. We hope to break ground next spring, provided I am successful in fundraising efforts!”
“The new facility is estimated to cost $650,000,” Lee adds, almost as an afterthought.
$650K is a lot of money to raise, especially with a struggling national economy in a rural community.
But although finding funding for both a new building and one’s own salary would be a high-risk professional move for some, Lee exudes a fearless professional that seems reluctant to hesitate once her will is set and it is almost possible to sense Lee’s vision unfolding as she looks past the immediate challenge of raising nearly three-quarters-of-a-million dollars in a weak economy.
“Once the new facility is built there will be great opportunities for educational programming, events, research, and outreach,” Lee says. “My role will be to organize and facilitate these efforts along with raising the funds necessary to keep the organization fiscally healthy.”
It takes a lot for any person to carve out a professional identity in their hometown. The job is even harder in a small community like Clarke County where everyone knows everyone else. But Lee is one of those rare people who have the courage and skill to choose where their story will unfold rather than having their lives dictated by job markets and economic circumstances.
Lee’s professional history is that of a woman who decides what she wants first and then figures out how to make it happen.
After graduating from Clarke County High School in 1986 and receiving her bachelors degree in Communications from George Mason University in 1991, Lee worked for two national environmental education non-profit organizations, first in Arlington, Virginia and then in Portland, Oregon, where she performed membership services, grant writing, and development work.
But not long after moving to Portland, Lee’s love of nature began calling her in a different direction.
Lee not only heard the call, she traded in the office job to chase her dreams.
“While in Portland, I fell in love with gardening and when I moved back to Virginia in 1998, I started a small landscaping business, Full Moon Plantscapes,” Lee recalls. “For six years, I designed and installed small gardens and sold hundreds of custom container gardens.”
Lee also earned her Master Gardener certification while running Full moon Plantscapes.
After her six-year venture as an entrepreneur, Lee once again grew restless and found herself looking for new challenges in Clarke County’s business landscape. While running a local history association may not have the first thought that came to Lee’s mind as she recalibrated her career compass, on closer inspection the Clarke County Historical Association was an excellent match for Lee’s natural charism and out-going personality.
“I was looking to transition out of the gardening field and back to non-profit writing and development work when the opportunity to work for CCHA arose in 2005,” Lee said. “Since then, my professional life has focused on fundraising, managing the semi-annual Art at the Mill show, community outreach, and special event planning and execution. This experience has been very valuable and will serve me in my new position with BRWC.”
Art at the Mill which, under Lee’s tutelage, has matured into the Mid-Atlantic region’s preeminent private art auction is just one of the successes that Lee has delivered for CCHA according to president Howard Means.
“Our terrific museum was created and launched under her watch and Jen has also been instrumental in the success of our on-going capital campaign for the Burwell-Morgan Mill, and in the midst of hard economic times — and with the help of a small army of volunteers — she has continually enhanced the quality of our Art at the Mill Shows, to the point where they are now one of the premier art events in the mid-Atlantic states,” Means said. ”Last November, we also held our initial Heritage Day at the Mill. We expect that to become a really fun annual event for the whole family. That’s a heck of a record of accomplishment.”
For seven years, Jennifer has been the glue that has held CCHA together,” Means continued. “We’re a complex organization — with a museum, a mill and mill campus, semiannual art shows, archives, and outreach programs. Sometimes, we’ve even been a little contentious! Jen has had to wear a lot of hats, and she wore all of them very well.”
Small organizations, especially not-for-profits, can often become a labor-of-love for those that offer their talents to make the organization successful. Leaving such a place can be a bittersweet experience and Lee’s voice intimates both the excitement of new opportunity as well as a hint of melancholy that comes from leaving a job that is as comfortable an old friend
“I feel very privileged to have served CCHA and its valuable role in this community and I have learned so much. This county is so rich in so many ways and has some of the oldest and most interesting history anywhere in the country,” Lee reflected. “The work that so many people have done over the last 70+ years since CCHA was founded to preserve our story is a real testament to this place and its people. It was always my goal to help instill a sense of place and reverence for it and I hope I did that in some small way. A great museum was created thanks to Roger Chavez, among others. The Burwell-Morgan Mill has many dedicated and hard-working souls devoted to its well-being and it’s still thriving, over 225 years after it was built. Thousands of people enjoy Art at the Mill twice a year and dozens of fantastic volunteers come together to make it happen. CCHA’s headquarters in Berryville house a tremendous archival record of the county’s history. It’s a tremendously dynamic organization with great leadership and support from the community.”
Lee’s excitement is palpable as she departs the organization that guards Clarke County’s cultural heritage in exchange for the helm of an organization with an equally important mission; guarding the County’s wildlife heritage.
“Moving from there to BRWC is a dream come true that I couldn’t have even imagined,” Lee says. “Having grown up here and always being intensely involved with the land and then to be able to learn its history and now apply myself to/for the natural world I’ve always felt was home is a perfect transition. I love this place, the people, and the animals here – this new opportunity is an expansion of that. BRWC happens to be headquartered in Clarke County, but it serves at least seven surrounding counties and DC. In fact, it has recently rehabilitated an eagle with lead poisoning from Richmond! The reach is far and important. The fact it’s based in Clarke County is just that much sweeter for me.”
Anyone who has ever met Jennifer Lee quickly understands that her outgoing personality and friendly spirit combined with razor sharp business skills make her a rare find for any organization. BRWC may be particularly lucky because, in a way, Lee has been in training for a wildlife job all of her life.
“I’ve loved animals since I was born, I think – furry ones, feathered ones, slimy ones,” Lee said. “I brought home injured birds, kittens, puppies, salamanders, turtles, and anything else I could ‘save’ – whether they needed it or not – my whole childhood.”
Lee says that even today she still saves spiders from the bathtub.
“I grew up in the country in western Loudoun and then in Clarke from 1978, where there were a lot more animals than people, so animals were very important friends of mine,” Lee reflected.
But even though Lee’s new post is the culmination of a childhood dream come true, she also understands that her longtime vocation for saving injured wounded wildlife now carries a much heavier role than before; the responsibility of raising money not just for the BRWC, but to also pay the salaries of the men and women who work there including herself.
“I’ve volunteered with BRWC for a few years and fantasized about how I could devote myself full-time to their mission while still being able to pay my rent,” Lee said. “Belinda has done an unbelievable job for this organization – founding it, administering the treatment, responding to thousands of calls for help, educating and exposing us to issues and animals we would not otherwise ‘know’ by promoting the care and service it provides. We now have a lot of money to raise and that takes a lot of effort. BRWC needed help and I’m just thrilled they are entrusting me with this role. The time is right.”
Lee carries no illusions about the difficulties and challenges that lie ahead as she winds down her work at CCHA and prepares for the transition to BRWC in June.
“Fundraising is always a challenge,” Lee said. “There are many worthy organizations in the area doing important work and it is only with the support of individuals and local businesses that these organizations can survive and thrive. I am confident that the unique services the wildlife center offers – the fact that it is the only organization of its kind in a 100-mile radius – and the commitment people have to the environment and its wildlife, all will make these plans a reality.”
Typical of Jennifer Lee, no matter how large her next challenge looms, she is already planning how to tackle the issue two steps beyond.
“Personally, I foresee one of my biggest challenges is to not shed tears every time I see an injured animal come into the Center or when one is triumphantly released back into the wild,” Lee said. “Every time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Belinda release a rehabilitated hawk or owl, I cry with awe and joy! And when I look around at the crowd, I’m not the only one!”
In 1785 Nathaniel Burwell, Belinda Burwell’s ancestor, together with Daniel Morgan built the mill that still bears the moniker of their partnership in Millwood, Virginia. Perhaps there is a touch of fate in Jennifer Lee having spent much of the last seven years of her career finding new ways for the old mill to enrich the lives of her community. Whether either Nathaniel Burwell or Daniel Morgan could have individually made their colonial milling venture a success will never be known. What is known is that together they built a legacy that has continued for more than 200 years. Although the new Burwell-Lee partnership is still yet to be forged in the fires of modern day commerce, both women demonstrate the same spirit of fearless optimism that must have been a necessity for the Burwell-Morgan partnership to have thrived against the daunting challenges facing a new business in what was then the American frontier. But if either man were alive today they would still recognize and endorse Lee’s recipe for success in what continues to be a strong and supportive community.
“I just feel extremely fortunate to be able to live and work here and do things that I think contribute to the well-being of the community,” Lee said. “I also invite people to learn more about the wildlife center, follow us on Facebook where you will find daily stories on the center’s patients and issues affecting them, and learn what you can do to help our native wildlife. We are all in this life together and need each other!”