Millions have been served by one couple’s mission to integrate the arts and sciences.

As trained artists and educators, Bob and Joan Root Ericksen long ago recognized a learning gap between the arts and sciences—the fields to which they have devoted their lives—among the general public. Seeking to advance a cross-disciplinary approach in these areas, the Ericksens founded the Sun Foundation in 1973.

“We felt there needed to be integration between the disciplines… which many people believe are somewhat distinct as academic studies,” explains Bob Ericksen.

Through the support of longtime donors, fundraising events and grant dollars, the Sun Foundation oversees a diverse range of educational opportunities, serving more than 5.5 million people in the four decades since its founding. Despite countless activities competing for their attention, two of the organization’s most popular programs—Art and Science in the Woods and the Clean Water Celebration—are targeted toward youth.

Model Programs for Youth
Every summer since 1974, children ages six to 18 travel to the Ericksens’ 800-acre rural property near Washburn to participate in Art and Science in the Woods. Nature is their classroom, and seasoned artists, engineers, archeologists, scientists and educators are their instructors. After a week of exposure to the arts and sciences through a variety of classes, the kids showcase their experience on the final day, with family, friends and community members invited to attend the festivities. They emerge transformed by the experience.

Having participated for more than a decade, artist Preston Jackson is among the distinguished instructors, offering a firsthand look at his work and engaging the kids in lively discussions. “Teachers take their students over… so they can ask Preston questions and talk about his work,” Ericksen says. “It’s about exposure to people who have a long history in their discipline.”

The Sun Foundation also engages children and the public at large through its annual Clean Water Celebration. Each April, busloads of schoolchildren pull into the Peoria Civic Center parking lot to learn how to become better stewards of their environment. Focusing on improved water quality, safe and sufficient water supplies, and the wise use of natural resources, the two-day event features a range of interactive activities and notable speakers, from oceanographer and author Sylvia Earle to NASA environmental engineer Jacqueline Quinn. It’s a program that speaks to a vital issue—one that will only become more significant in the coming years—and the organization hopes it can become a model to be replicated nationally.

Engaged in the Mission
Now in its 10th year, Winter Warming is a major fundraiser for the Sun Foundation’s children’s programs and an opportunity to inform the public about the organization’s mission and activities. “We tell people as much as we can [about] how we do what we do… It’s a wonderful evening of wine, brews and food tasting,” explains Ericksen. “The best way to get informed is to sit down with friends at a table, talk and ask questions.”

Traditionally a wine tasting and silent auction, this year’s event will also showcase work from a variety of artists. While the roster is still being finalized, glass artists Jeremie Draper and Hiram Toraason, as well as Preston Jackson, are among those featured. “We try to represent those who have taught with us, how long they have been engaged with us, and how they bring their discipline and work to the Peoria area for Art and Science in the Woods,” Ericksen notes.

While the event caters to adults, the fundraising remains focused on educating children through these unique, cross-disciplinary activities. “The Sun Foundation’s core is art and science—integrating those two,” Ericksen says. “How can we better serve our students, families and educators, and how can our schools benefit from seeing how to bring these information offerings back into the classroom?” a&s

Winter Warming: Wine with Friends takes place on January 24, 2015, from 6 to 9:30pm at Life Together Center, 3601 N. Sheridan Road in Peoria. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit sunfoundation.org or call (309) 246-8403.