Layoffs at Hidden Villa, programs in flux | May 19, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 19, 2006

Layoffs at Hidden Villa, programs in flux

Executive director cites fundraising woes

by Bill D'Agostino

Hidden Villa, a bucolic 1,600-acre farm and wilderness preserve in Los Altos Hills, will temporarily cancel its popular 12-day summer camps in 2007 and is eliminating eight related positions.

The nonprofit's leaders say the changes will help it regain its financial footing and focus on new programs. With the camps suspended, the farm will be able to reopen to the public next summer, after more than a decade of being closed during the warmer months due to safety concerns stemming from the 12-day camps.

Executive Director Beth Ross said Hidden Villa, which teaches young and old about environment stewardship, has been receiving fewer donations.

"Like many nonprofits we have been impacted by a general decline in fundraising experienced after Katrina, Rita and the tsunami disasters," Ross wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly.

"In response to a leveling off of fundraising, Hidden Villa is making changes in our organization while continuing to maintain the integrity of our programs."

According to publicly available tax forms, fundraising had already begun to decline at Hidden Villa before last year's natural disasters.

In 2003-'04, the nonprofit ran a $440,000 budget surplus under Executive Director Judith Steiner. Surpluses were also created in previous years.

After contributions peaked in 2003-'04 at $2.1 million, they dropped to $1.6 million in 2004-'05 under Ross' leadership. That year, the agency ran a $340,000 deficit.

Ross did not — despite repeated questioning via e-mail — lay out the specifics of this year's $2.6 million budget or next year's $2.3 budget, which the Board of Directors has yet to officially approve.

The board directed Ross to have a balanced budget for 2006-'07, which begins in September, according to board Chair Tom Livermore.

"We're not in financially bad shape at all," Livermore said. "We're just trying to be fiscally responsible and keep ourselves from getting into bad shape."

This summer's camps are unaffected by the change, and Hidden Villa is currently accepting enrollments. Ross did not say when the 12-day sleep-away camps, which 280 junior high school and high school students attend, might return. The camps include traditional summer activities like swimming and archery as well as more environmentally focused pursuits like organic gardening and caring for farm animals.

The Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund recently granted Hidden Villa a $5,000 grant to support its animal program.

Hidden Villa's day camps and five-day junior residential camps will continue uninterrupted, despite the cancellation of the 12-day programs.

Five of the eight employees in the eliminated positions are being offered new jobs at Hidden Villa, Ross wrote. Two of the positions were eliminated earlier this month; the rest will be eliminated at the end of August.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit is starting a new program, "Healthy Food, Healthy Families," that will share 40 percent of its agriculture with families that Mountain View's Community Services Agency serves. The 35,000 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables are anticipated to feed 4,000 people this summer.

Hidden Villa is also working to have stronger connections to local schools. It currently has staff in schools in Mountain View and Redwood City to promote its curriculum.

Leaders with the organization are also considering new yearlong programs for the older age groups the 12-day camps serve.

"Our environmental education and even our camps to some degree have been great single-time experiences," Livermore said. "We're trying to have a bigger impact on kids' lives by having multiple impacts."

Hidden Villa is also making its hostel and other facilities more available for rental by removing office space.

"We're all really, really excited about our future and our direction," Livermore said.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be reached at