Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 9, 2010

Hidden Villa celebrates golden anniversary

After 50 years as a nonprofit, outdoor-education center continues to inform, inspire

by Karla Kane

Hidden Villa, the 1,600-acre education center, working farm and wilderness preserve nestled in Los Altos Hills, will celebrate its 50th anniversary as a nonprofit Saturday.

Purchased by the Duveneck family in 1924 and incorporated into a nonprofit organization in 1960, Hidden Villa has grown into one of the community's leading havens for environmental education, sustainable agriculture and programs for kids of all ages, races and economic backgrounds.

"It's a real gem," Hidden Villa Major Gifts Officer Marc Sidel said of the site.

"Having the space and land accessible for all types of people in such a beautiful place with so much history, it's unique."

To celebrate its anniversary, a full afternoon of activities, open to the public, is planned for Saturday, April 10, from 1 to 4 p.m., including animal introductions, crafts, nature games, wildlife tracking, cheese-making demonstrations, gardening and, at 3 p.m., a panel discussion featuring David Duveneck (heir to the founders, who were Palo Alto philanthropists) and members of the board of directors.

The discussion will be an opportunity to hear about Hidden Villa's past as well as its future direction, Sidel said.

The villa hosts around 30,000 formal participants and 20,000 casual visitors annually. It also offers a residential-intern program.

The land is now home to chickens, cats, cows, sheep, goats and pigs. Fruit and vegetable crops thrive, lush gardens bloom, and a host of neighboring wild animals roam the surrounding forests and fields. The historic Duveneck house and hostel complex still stand, alongside new, eco-friendly buildings.

Its roots as a center for diversity and education run deeper than 50 years, as Josephine Duveneck first opened her property to travelers as a hostel in the 1930s. In 1945, she held Hidden Villa's first summer camp, with the goal of enrolling children from different racial and economic backgrounds to promote cultural sensitivity and combat racism.

"This new vision, it was very unusual for a camp at that time," Sidel said.

Since then, Hidden Villa's camps have grown, with programs for different age groups with varied interests, including cooking, gardening, animals, Native American culture, farming, wilderness exploration, backpacking and youth leadership.

The farm's Community Supported Agriculture program delivers boxes of fresh produce to 120 subscribers from May to November. It donates 25 percent of its bounty to the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos to feed people in need.

"We want to make fresh, healthy food more accessible to those who might not be able to afford it, as part of our social-justice mission," Sidel said.

In 2006, the organization experienced internal conflict when the expense of running the beloved summer camps outpaced the nonprofit's budget. Proposed cutbacks included "scaling back" the residential camps by holding fewer sessions, which prompted an outcry from supporters who believed Hidden Villa's mission was being diminished.

Loyal camp alumni and supporters rallied and raised funds for the program, although some staff cutbacks were ultimately made, according to Sidel.

"After 2006, camp fully recovered and has even grown," Sidel said. Since then, a shift toward relying more on fees and less on donations has helped make the Hidden Villa programs more sustainable on the whole.

Hidden Villa's latest development is a partnership with service organization Heifer International, which now has offices on the premises and plans to construct a "Global Village" on site. This will allow kids to spend the night in one of five model homes from different cultures and reflect on the living situations of others.

"It's an inspired partnership," Sidel said, one that echoes Hidden Villa's messages of agricultural sustainability and social justice.

Offsite, Hidden Villa is also working with Redwood City teens on programs to get young adults more interested in leadership and outdoor activity.

Back on the farm, the Hidden Villa seasons continue to unfold as they have for years. The spring gardens will soon bloom and baby animals are being born.

"It's a banner year for lambs," Sidel said. A baby goat is expected later in the month.

Sidel's favorite resident, a friendly goat called Coco, is ready to go on walks with summer campers, a popular activity with "kids" of both species.

Though its scope has broadened over the past 50 years, Hidden Villa's mission of inspiring the community has remained steadfast.

"It's an opportunity to fall in love with the natural world," Sidel said.

Editorial Assistant Karla Kane can be e-mailed at kkane@paweekly.com.

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