CEO Roberta English has big plans for Wildlife Prairie Park’s 45th year.
Roberta English is no stranger to big cities. She’s lived in Chicago, Dublin, London and Washington, D.C., to name a few. But friends and family in central Illinois brought her back to the Peoria area year after year, and she grew to love it.
In 2011, she pivoted from television journalism to nonprofit work, which opened a path to Peoria. In 2013, she moved here full-time, taking a position with Neighborhood House as its director of community outreach. She left the operation as its chief operating officer in 2019.
“Neighborhood House is definitely still a place that has my heart,” she recently reflected. “I think I grew into the person I am at Neighborhood House. … And what a place to learn about nonprofits — a place that is really friendly and generous.”
English’s kids didn’t believe her when she told them she was considering the CEO position at Wildlife Prairie Park, which was originally the dream of the renowned philanthropists and conservationists Bill and Hazel Rutherford. She is allergic to animals, after all.
“I know that God has a very interesting sense of humor,” she acknowledged. “I think He puts you where you’re supposed to be because I remember having the first conversation about Wildlife Prairie Park, and I was like, what? But it’s a place that you fall in love with.”
English expresses a belief that it’s essential to be intentional, goal-focused. When she took the job in November 2019, she surveyed visitors to find out what they wanted from their park. Those surveys led to a 2021 strategic plan. English, her board and her staff have already put that plan in motion through fundraising, infrastructure investments and new and improved programming.
The next step is reminding central Illinois about the gem they have in their backyard.
‘God has a very interesting sense of humor … I think He puts you where you’re supposed to be.’
“Roberta’s passion for and commitment to the park is amazing,” said Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Behnke. “She is constantly thinking about ways to improve the park and inspires all of us here to do the same. She is involved in every aspect of the park and will jump in and do whatever is needed anytime. She most definitely leads by example!”
Indeed, the CEO’s energy is infectious. From stories about restoring and restocking the lakes to tales of visitor response to the laser tag equipment that debuted during 2022’s Wildlife Scary Park, English effuses an excitement about park successes that started as visitor requests. Next up are paintball options for birthday parties.
Meanwhile, 2022 brough six new cozy cabins with gas fireplaces. The park’s vacation rental buildings now total 21 and many guests pair their stay with a behind-the-scenes tour on the park’s Adventure Trek bus. The fox enclosure, down for years, is now fully renovated, and Wildlife recently welcomed new wolves. Bobcats are due in 2023.
Meanwhile, park patrons continue to pack old favorites like the train, frisbee golf course, petting zoo, dirtbike tracks and kayak rentals. Wildlife also offers wedding rental and corporate retreat packages at the newly remodeled Forest Hall.
“Bobbie has created an environment where there is a lot of passion to be good stewards of the park,” said Finance Director John Patroff.
For her part, English has seen how rare it is to have recreational and educational activities of the quality Wildlife offers, and how badly urban areas need those services at affordable prices. Winter rates at the park are just $8 for adults and $6 for children and seniors. Memberships start as low as $55.
“What’s interesting about Wildlife is that it’s not one thing,” said English. “You bring them here, and they have animals. A lot of people love animals. But we also have a bunch of lakes because a lot of people love the water and fishing. We have our hiking trails. We have our mountain bike trails. And then the cabins and camping. It’s not just attracting the same kind of person.”
Offering diverse recreational activities is just one of Wildlife Prairie Park’s missions. English hasn’t lost focus on the other two: education and conservation. In 2023, park leaders intend to increase school field trips and continue adult programming like the monthly Critters and Coffee lecture series, Sunset Yoga on the Prairie, and seasonal survival classes.
Outreach education also is a priority. Relaxation of COVID restrictions means animal keepers can take ambassador animals into the community. In 2022, the animals returned to schools and libraries. This year, they will also be visiting senior care facilities.
English is excited about the opportunities for the community, but she’s practical about the future. The park receives no government funding. Wildlife can only continue to be a community resource if the community takes advantage of it.
‘If people come out and enjoy this park, we will have all the revenue we need.’
“I think one of the things that will always be a challenge for Wildlife Prairie Park is that we are not a state park. We’re fine with it. We are the community’s park,” English explained. “If people come out and enjoy this park, we will have all the revenue we need. Come out and enjoy Wildlife Prairie Park. We love our park.”
For more information about Wildlife Prairie Park, visit online at wildlifeprairiepark.org.