IO Anita Purves Nature Center 1

Children enjoy snacks and stories during Forest Preschool at Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana.

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Anita Purves was not a wealthy donor. She is a local legend. And the Urbana nature center named for her works to carry on her mission.

In 1973, the local Natural Areas Study Group convinced the Urbana Park District to take over their school tour programs in Busey Woods and assisted the district in establishing its first environmental center. One of the group’s active members was Anita Parker Purves.

Anita was also a charter member of the Urbana Park District Advisory Committee, taught nature study in the Leal School enrichment program, was a member of the Audubon Society and the Leal School PTA and was instrumental in the development of the Thornburn Environmental Awareness Center.

Anita dreamt of a place where children could explore, discover and connect with nature, and she sought ways to integrate environmental education into the school curriculum. Knowing she was dying of cancer, she actively worked with the Urbana Park District on plans for a nature center and asked that upon her death, any memorial donations be made toward its construction. She died in 1975.

Four years later, the dream that Anita and so many other concerned citizens worked to achieve was realized. The Urbana Park District opened and dedicated the Anita Purves Nature Center with these words: “This is but a small tribute to a spirited young woman who inspired both children and adult members of the community to share her enthusiasm for the kinship of all living things.”

Anita did so much more than help secure funds for a nature center. Her legacy inspires the Urbana Park District to collaborate with our community and to remain a local leader in environmental education and sustainability.

Forty years after the center was built, we maintain our commitment to facilitating inclusive opportunities for everyone to connect with our shared environment.

Too often called “the best-kept secret in Urbana,” the center features habitat gardens, an indoor wildlife observation room, the interactive “Field Station” exhibit hall, education wildlife such as screech owls, the Friendship Grove Nature Playscape and the trailhead for Busey Woods, including a one-third mile accessible boardwalk loop. Multipurpose rooms and an outdoor fire ring facilitate a diverse array of programs, community gatherings and rentals.

Today, the nature center serves roughly 30,000 people annually through visits, programs, events and summer camps. Recent updates feature energy-efficient lighting and solar panels. New programs include Forest Preschool classes, Forest Sensory Walks for adults and programming and leadership opportunities for teens.

The center provides a meeting place for anyone who appreciates the natural world that surrounds and unites us all. We are continuing the work that Anita started so long ago.

Visit the Anita Purves Nature Center at 1505 N. Broadway, U, at the north end of Crystal Lake Park. You can also find us on social media and at urbanaparks.org. The center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Visitation is free, and everyone is welcome.

Savannah Donovan is the environmental public program coordinator for the Urbana Park District. Email her at sydonovan@urbanaparks.org.