Local non-profit organization receives community help after thieves take $10,000 worth of items

David Snyder, Staff Reporter

When Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) staff members arrived at Helen McCabe State Park on Feb. 1, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. That was, until they noticed someone had jimmied the lock off their storage shed at the park.

Environmental Education Director Carlyn Saunders said when they opened the door, everything of substance was gone.

They estimated a loss of around $10,000 worth of items, ranging from waders and inflatable boats to boxes of knitting yarn. These were materials used for KEEN’s youth education program Earth Explorers.

“We had big bins full of a bunch of different things,” Saunders said. “Our assumption is that [the thieves] really didn’t know exactly what they were taking.”

Saunders said law enforcement hasn’t found any leads but hinted that the theft might be drug-related because the stolen items could presumably be sold for quick cash. She thinks KEEN’s chances of getting the stolen items back are low.

Because KEEN is a non-profit, the items taken were funded by grant and donation money KEEN had gathered over the last six years. Without insurance or the financial resources to immediately replace the items, Saunders said the impact on KEEN’s educational programming is huge.

The Earth Explorers program mirrors the Ellensburg School District’s current hybrid education model, which has students in the classroom twice a week. Students registered for the program can spend their virtual learning days outdoors with KEEN doing hands-on STEM learning activities.

According to Saunders, the stolen items were used to add educational depth to the program’s activities.

“While these items directly don’t impact our ability to continue operating our program, they are definitely items that go a long way in enriching the content of our program,” Saunders said. “The waders help us get the kids out into the water, so [they] can start learning about macroinvertebrates and water quality.”

Turning to the community

Shortly after announcing the incident on social media, KEEN received donation offers from people looking to help the organization rebound.

KEEN then created a wish list on its website comprised of the items that were lost. Saunders said the organization has since received an influx of donations from people all over the county and state, sending in everything from money to used items.

Although the donations aren’t close to making up for the total loss, Saunders said they help get the organization on a path towards recovery.

“We’re hoping that some of the smaller stuff that we use daily will be replaced over the next couple of weeks,” Saunders said. “Everyone is horrified that this has happened, especially the parents whose kids we see every week.”

Ashley Nordberg, a local psychiatric nurse practitioner, has three young boys involved in KEEN programming. She encouraged people on Facebook to help the organization because it helped get her kids outdoors safely during the pandemic.

“[KEEN] saw a need, and they went out, and they found a way to address it in [a] magnificent way,” Nordberg said. “I’ve just been really fortunate that [my kids] have that opportunity to get out with other kids and still have an opportunity to engage with people and learn.”

Nordberg said she donated a large sum to KEEN back in the summer. Now she’s sifting through her garage to collect anything she can to give to the organization.

Bárbara del Mar Robles bought a few items from KEEN’s wish list to donate. As the director of teaching academies with the CWU College of Education, she felt it was important to support KEEN because of their work to create awareness for nature-based education.

“Interacting with nature for small children really gives them the opportunity to think and to ask questions, and just develop inquisitive minds,” Robles said. “From one educator to another, I couldn’t not support KEEN.”

Going forward

According to Saunders, one of KEEN’s main focuses is connecting locals to their outdoor spaces. Saunders said the generosity of people in the community reaffirms the organization’s work over the past two decades.

While KEEN may have to rely on future grant funds to replace everything that was lost, Saunders said the current donations are an indication of people’s investment in youth education. 

“We’re proud of their desire to put our kids’ education first and our kid’s opportunities first,” Saunders said. “We’re very proud to be involved in this community we have here.”