2020 ANCA Outstanding New Leader Award

The Association of Nature Center Administrators is proud to recognize Merica Whitehall, Executive Director of Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue, Nebraska, with the 2020 ANCA Outstanding New Leader Award. This award acknowledges Whitehall’s achievements within the nature and environmental learning center field in organizational leadership, professionalism, professional development, and creativity.

Merica Whitehall, recipient of the 2020 ANCA Outstanding New Leader AwardMerica Whitehall, recipient of the 2020 ANCA Outstanding New Leader Award.Whitehall joined Fontenelle Forest in 2016 and has since led the Forest in engaging new audiences and building relationships within the region. Elizabeth Mulkerrin, Vice President of Education at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, speaks highly of Whitehall’s beginnings at the Forest. 

“The first two weeks as the executive director of Fontenelle Forest, Merica was reaching out to local museums, zoos, and nature centers to introduce herself to the community,” Mulkerrin says. “Merica was very professional and gave us the impression of a very strong leader who was ready to take on her role as the leader of Fontenelle Forest, jumping into developing an understanding of the community and learning how we all collaborate as a community. Her strong presence and confidence helped form the bond between the zoo and the forest.”

Denise Lewis, Director of Raptor Recovery at Fontenelle Forest, echoes Mulkerrin’s sentiment. “When Merica was hired as the Executive Director ... I was immediately impressed by her sense of community, leadership, and creativity,” she says. “Her creative vision is professionally communicated to all members of the community, from our Executive Board Members to our part-time seasonal staff. She is often seen in the parking lot speaking to members of the public. She truly listens to all sides before a decision is made on any level.”

Among Whitehall’s accomplishments as director, she has been instrumental in the creation of TreeRush Adventures at Fontenelle Forest, an adventure park that includes bridges, zip lines, and swings between the trees of the Forest. Kema Geroux, Director of Community Relations for TreeRush Adventures at Fontenelle Forest, writes, “Without Merica, I’m not sure TreeRush Adventures at Fontenelle Forest would have opened in July 2019. With integrity and respect, Merica introduced the notion of partnering to build an adventure park to board members and to community stakeholders ... Throughout park construction and opening preparations, Merica inspired trust in the adventure park vision.”

Merica Whitehall facilitates a panel on advocacy at the 2019 ANCA Summit in Cincinnati, OHWhitehall facilitates a panel on advocacy at the 2019 ANCA Summit at the Cincinnati Nature Center.Whitehall has led a diverse professional career that includes executive level nonprofit management, teaching in higher education, and managing a nationally touring performing arts company. Beyond her responsibilities of Fontenelle Forest, she has been active in ANCA by presenting at multiple ANCA Summits, serving on a Peer Consult team, and contributing as a member of the ANCA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Catherine Demes Maydew, Treasurer on the Fontenelle Forest Executive Board, notes that Whitehall is actively involved in the community: “Locally, five of the Omaha area's major foundations have recognized her leadership by inviting her to participate in exclusive leadership opportunities. She has also found the time to volunteer on the boards of the Nebraska Land Trust, Back to the River, Opera Omaha, and the Offutt Advisory Council.”

To recognize Whitehall’s achievements, ANCA will host an Awards Ceremony during the 2020 ANCA Virtual Summit, September 14-17.

TreeRush Adventures at Fontenelle ForestTreeRush Adventures at Fontenelle Forest, a 4-acre adventure course that includes bridges, zip lines, and swings between the trees of the Forest. Whitehall helped establish the adventure course in 2019.

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The ANCA Outstanding New Leader Award recognizes an individual with the potential for future impact within the field of nature center administrators. Award recipients demonstrate leadership, professionalism, professional development, and creativity within the field of nature and environmental learning center, while holding less than five (5) years of full-time work experience as the director, executive director, or leader at the highest administrative level at an organization. This award began in 2014.

The Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) is the only professional association in the United States dedicated to leaders in the nature and environmental learning center profession, including directors, managers, and senior administrators. ANCA supports 700+ dues-paying members from all over the world.