EcoWorks was incorporated in summer, 2016 and became operational in June, 2017. The founder was Lori Lilly, who moved to Howard County in 2009. One of Lori’s first observations when moving to Ellicott City was that something was missing – namely an organization that was a lead in mobilizing communities to action around watershed priorities. This idea simmered within her during her tenure at the Center for Watershed Protection in Ellicott City while she simultaneously explored initiatives of existing non-profits, became an activist for environmental protections at public meetings and grew roots as a solutions advocate for Ellicott City’s flooding issues.
Lori left the Center in 2014 and the notion of forming her own non-profit began to take more shape in the form of conversations with people and other non-profits. While conversations continued, she began work with the Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth (READY) program as Operations Manager under Project Manager Donald Tsusaki and as an employee for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay (the Alliance).
The READY program began in 2012 through the partnership of Howard County Government, People Acting Together in Howard (PATH) and the Alliance with support from Parks and People Foundation and University of MD Sea Grant. PATH responded to their stakeholder identified needs for 1) employment for youth, who were unemployed at a higher rate than the general population, and 2) stormwater management, with advocacy to the County for a “green jobs” program for young adults. The County supported the request with an annual grant to the Alliance to administer and run the READY program.
Initial years of the summer-run program were successful, though not without challenges. One initial difficulty was not having a space from which to run the program – its people, tools, trucks and materials. Howard Community College stepped up in a big way to provide this support in initial years. Work began to extend beyond the summer term and a need for workers into the fall began to become “a thing.” The main activity of the crews - rain garden construction - began to necessitate a new need – rain garden maintenance. But program participants were happy as evidenced by their return year after year, and customers were happy too – some of those same initial customers such as First Presbyterian and Temple Isaiah are still customers to this day for rain garden maintenance.
Small scale project construction and oversight was new to Lori whose previous experiences revolved around planning and large-scale construction via contractors. Also new was overseeing the work of crews of young adults. While the work was stressful and overwhelming at times, Lori grew to love and appreciate the capacity of human power to make a difference in the lives of the individuals doing the work and within the communities where the work was being done. This was most exemplified in Ellicott City where Lori brought the power of the crews together with an identified watershed need – debris management in the stream channels. During this time, Lori also nurtured her obsession for plants and, through a desire to grow and propagate native plant material for projects, she ended up forming a partnership with the Howard County Department of Corrections to host a plant nursery for the READY program – and thus the workforce development model was expanded to a new demographic.
One of the pivotal conversations that Lori had in thinking about forming a non-profit was with Jim Caldwell, who at the time was the Director of the Office of Environmental Sustainability. Jim and Lori talked about the READY program’s long-term home – the Alliance had graciously seeded the program in Howard County because there was not an existing organization with the capacity to administer such an effort. Lori and Jim talked about the new non-profit as having potential to fulfill more than just Lori’s vision for an NGO with a strategic watershed restoration focus but as a potential local home for the READY program.
And so the initial formation committee – or pre-founding Board - for EcoWorks included Lori, Jim, Lou Etgen (Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay), Bob Marietta (Howard Community College), Guy Hager (Parks and People Foundation), Don Tsusaki and Bill Mahoney (Howard County Office of Environmental Sustainability). Conflicts of interest and other events led to the formation of the first “official” Board that included Josh Feldmark as Chair, Guy Hager, Laurie Bulka, Jaison Renkenberger, Bob Marietta, Rizwan Siddiqi, Bill Mahoney and Christiana Mercer Rigby. The founding Board with Lori went through all the steps to form the non-profit and transfer the READY program from the Alliance to EcoWorks. In March, 2017, EcoWorks moved into the Nonprofit Collaborative (NPC) where space is shared with a dozen other non-profits who are working to make Howard County the best place it can be for everyone. Moving into the NPC was a pivotal development for the organization, providing not just space from which employees could work, but elevating the organization to the same level as other long-standing Howard County non-profits who were tenants.
The NPC did not provide space for EcoWorks’ field operations, however, which were run from a parking area on County property, property that was to be slated for the new courthouse. EcoWorks searched for nearly a year for new space that was affordable and eventually landed at the Community Ecology Center (CEC) in June of 2019. The Community Ecology Center is owned by the Community Ecology Institute who protected the last farm in Columbia from development in order to educate people and nurture environmental stewardship – truly a good fit for EcoWorks. And hence EcoWorks’ three homes at the NPC, CEC and Dept of Corrections were set.
Becoming operationally and fiscally stable were monumental milestones for the new organization.
Next up was goal setting. The strategic planning process was initiated with a team of professionals from Leadership Howard County in spring, 2018, and that became the foundation for the final strategic plan adopted in Dec, 2019. The strategic plan is intentionally ambitious as a reflection of the accelerated action that is needed to address current environmental issues. And so we are off.
Thank you for reading our story and we hope that you will join us in our continued journey to empower people to respect and restore our natural systems for future generations!