Theresa Cullen, Executive Director Credit: Alice Ferguson Foundation

Theresa Cullen, Executive Director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, was selected to join the National Park Foundation’s first Friends Leadership Institute in 2019. This week, Theresa is traveling to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to attend the Fall 2022 Friends Alliance Meeting as a culmination of her experience in this special cohort. Read about her journey thus far and follow along for Part 2 of her experience recap! 

When I became the Executive Director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation in August of 2019, I switched careers from education to leading this special nonprofit. Part of our programming works alongside the National Park Service in various capacities. Not long after I joined the Alice Ferguson Foundation, I saw an opportunity to be a part of the National Park Foundation’s first Friends Leadership Institute cohort and jumped on the chance to apply. The National Park Foundation is the fundraising wing of the National Park Service.

The Friends Leadership Institute has been created to identify and support cohorts of leaders within Friends Groups. The Leadership Institute is more than a training program—it’s a year-long professional developmental experience that provides participants with a unique opportunity to understand and develop their leadership style, build fundamental skills and receive targeted feedback from their peers and the facilitators.– Friends Leadership Institute

The Alice Ferguson Foundation works with the National Park Service through two cooperative agreements for a portion of Piscataway Park. We steward the native land of the Piscataway people and maintain the grounds along the rim of the Potomac River. In addition, we provide environmental science programming in regional and national parks. This long-standing program is called Bridging the Watershed.

The Living Shoreline of Piscataway Park in Accokeek, Maryland Credit: Alice Ferguson Foundation

With the support of Piscataway Park’s superintendent, in the Fall of 2019, I applied and was accepted to be a member of the first Friends Leadership Institute cohort. I joined 25 other individuals that work alongside the national parks throughout the United States. Our group spans out West to the Grand Canyon, as far north as Michigan, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and partners working along the Appalachian Trail.

An in-person meeting was scheduled for February 2020 in Oregon, where our two leaders, Jim and Cynthia, resided. I think most of you remember the story of any “ in-person” meetings during that year.  In early 2020, the COVID-19 virus outbreak was the worst on the west coast, with an epicenter in Seattle, Washington.  Needless to say, that meeting didn’t occur. We pivoted to virtual meetings with the hope of an in-person opportunity at the annual Friends Alliance Meeting in Austin, Texas, that summer.  However, the virus spread rapidly and viciously, meaning in-person events were canceled for the year.

We continued the cohort online as school systems and universities did across the United States and the world. We had homework assignments, joined smaller break-out sessions, and met with our leadership team bi-weekly.  But I, like so many individuals, found the inability to be in person very challenging. Not too different from my teenage children, who I watched struggle with online school and its distractions as our entire household navigated this new world. 

A year after my initial application, the Friends Leadership Institute concluded with final projects and a “graduation” ceremony.  I received a box in the mail with a black cap, tassel, and a few “swag” items celebrating our year together. We wore our caps during the virtual ceremony and took “screenshot” photos to share the moment.  It was amusing and jovial for us.  The cohort periodically sends emails or group messages to stay in touch.

Last month, I received an email from one of the group leaders letting me know of the  Fall 2022 Friends Alliance Meeting at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  Grant money was available to make the trip, so I immediately submitted the forms to meet with cohort members and attend my first Friends Alliance Meeting.  When I received word that the funding was granted, I quickly booked my ticket for Tennessee! 

The Friends Alliance is an informal union of philanthropic park partners and park officials that meet several times a year to share best practices and advance park partnerships. The Alliance convened its first meeting in 1994 with a small group of philanthropic park partner (or “Friends Group”) executives to share stories and learn from one another. Since its inception, the Alliance has grown exponentially and evolved into a peer-to-peer learning, collaborative network for park partners.– Friends Leadership Institute

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Off I go to the Great Smoky Mountains for a three-day conference where I will meet members of the cohort and enjoy some long-awaited in-person camaraderie. I’m looking forward to sharing my Tennessee adventures with all of you!


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