Community groups, supporters help TreeSong thrive during pandemic

The nonprofit, Washougal nature-awareness center gets a new outdoor shelter and native-plant circle garden

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Children dress up and gather around a tree at the TreeSong Nature Awareness and Retreat Center's 2018 "Run Wild!" event in Camas.

Michelle Fox is overcome with joy, gratitude and a bit of disbelief when she thinks about how the TreeSong Nature Awareness and Retreat Center’s two recent major projects were completed thanks to the hard work and financial assistance from a variety of community members, organizations and businesses who love nature and believe in her mission.

The rural Washougal, nonprofit nature awareness center recently debuted its new outdoor shelter, built free of charge by Vancouver-based Design Doctors Construction; and is working to finish its native-plant circle garden, funded with a $2,500 grant from the Camas-Washougal Rotary Club and Camas-Washougal Community Chest and constructed by local volunteers.

In March 2020, Fox was unsure if TreeSong would survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Seventeen months later, the organization is not only surviving but thriving thanks in part to the generosity of its supporters.

“To sit here right now and (witness the) abundance, with gardens and shelters and all of these people wanting to support these things, it’s been so positive,” said Fox, TreeSong’s founder and executive director. “Part of TreeSong’s mission is community-building and (providing) connections beyond just what’s happening right here into the greater community. That’s what I’ve seen with both projects — the joy, the connection, and the knowledge that they are going to give for years and years and years. Honestly, in a time when there’s a lot of heaviness and divisiveness out there, it’s nice to know that there are beautiful things unfolding in our community.”

Fox suddenly found herself in need of a new shelter to house TreeSong’s youth programs when her previous structure collapsed after a February snowstorm. She struggled to find a contractor before reaching out to an acquaintance who put her in touch with Justin Ross, the owner of Design Doctors Construction, who was more than willing to build a replacement.

“She needed (my help), first and foremost,” Ross said. “And morally, I support what she’s doing out there in her mission to provide a place to educate kids about nature. Growing up as a kid in California, I was always part of nature programs and camps that went through our schools. I’ve always been a big proponent for people getting into nature because I think that’s where our roots are and where people can find (peace). The biggest motivation for me was that I believe in her cause.”

Ross and his employees built the 12-foot-by-16 foot shelter on Aug. 14 and went back the next day to provide some finishing touches.

“It is gorgeous. It’s something that would be at Skamania Lodge,” Fox said. “It’s a really nice big shelter (with) amazing craftsmanship. Master craftsmen built this for sure. Justin would not cut any corners.”

The news got even better for Fox when Ross told her that he’d donate not only the labor, but the materials as well.

“We were over at the site, and Justin said, ‘You could even put in skylights,’ and I said, ‘We have kind of a modest budget,'” Fox said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Oh no, you wouldn’t be paying for any of it.’ I figured TreeSong would pay for the materials, but he said, ‘We’re going to get all the materials donated or we’ll take care of it.’ I’m sure my mouth hung open and tears probably welled up. I don’t even know how to integrate the fact that they just did it for us.”

Ross convinced two of the building supply companies that he regularly works with to donate most of the materials and purchased the rest. He estimated the project would cost somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 to complete.

“When I met with Michelle, I saw that she didn’t have a lot of budget,” Ross said. “They could’ve scraped something together, but it would’ve been a stretch. They would’ve had to tap pretty deep into their pockets for something nice.

“I figured that with my resources and my influence, I could make a difference, and I was right. It worked out. Sure, I had to pay for some of it myself, but I run the best remodel company in Clark County, and we make good money. I figured (TreeSong) would be a good place to put it back in. It was an investment on our part, but it was worth it.”

The circle garden, in contrast, was born not out of necessity, but a somewhat unexpected opportunity.

Earlier this year, the Camas-Washougal Rotary Club and Camas-Washougal Community Chest awarded TreeSong with one of their annual grants to construct the circle garden that Fox and the organization’s board members had been discussing for several years.

“We selected TreeSong for this support because of its outstanding and innovative programs, providing opportunities for youth and family to connect to the natural world,” Rotary Club member Max Hall said. “TreeSong’s adult programs and classes offer a respite from the hectic pace of life, allowing us to renew our spirit and energy.”

The COVID-19 pandemic indirectly provided TreeSong with an opening to create the circle garden, which had been “on the backburner” Fox said.

Fox and a group of local volunteers — including Rotary members — have worked diligently since April to construct the garden, which features wood-framed bark paths, rock-edged plant beds, a small tree and local artwork.

“It’s been such a labor of love from so many hands,” Fox said of the garden, which will offer opportunities for education and respite to children and adults.

“It’s a tranquil, meditative place for people to enjoy the peace, as well as an educational place,” Fox said. “We wanted to have a place to highlight the native plants because we want to support education of our native species so people know what’s around them. The more we know and the more we learn, the more we protect and feel the kindredship and connection.”

The Rotary’s Peacebuilding Committee also donated funds for a peace pole that will be planted in the garden on Sept. 11.

“The peace pole will be dedicated on the 20th remembrance of the World Trade Center attack,” Hall said. “In these hectic times with divisiveness in many aspects of society, peace poles remind us of our shared humanity and universal aspirations for peace.”