Tjiska Van Wyk is making Jack London work
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Growing up on a dairy farm in Ripon, halfway between Modesto and Stockton, Tjiska Van Wyk developed an intense love of nature. When she moved to Chico for college, that love only intensified. But Van Wyk’s dreamy idyll came to an abrupt end when she traveled to Los Angeles to pursue her master’s degree.
“It was a rude awakening,” she said. “From beautiful, rural areas to a concrete jungle. That’s when my passion started for doing everything I could to save the environment.”
Soon Van Wyk was stuffing envelopes for the Sierra Club, and before long she fell into fundraising, a match made in heaven. The new executive director of Jack London State Park said modestly, “Raising funds seemed to suit my particular personality.”
For the next 25 years she gained a reputation as an outstanding “cause marketer” for nonprofit organizations such as Earthjustice, American Red Cross, San Francisco Zoological Society and Sierra Club. She also co-founded Rachel’s Network, a membership organization for philanthropic leaders advancing environmental issues.
Since April she has turned her attention to Glen Ellen’s historic park, operated under the first-ever agreement between the state and a nonprofit, which prevented the 1,400-acre site from closing on July 1.
Van Wyk, who is single, lives in Glen Ellen and recently talked about planned changes at the park.
What accounts for your success with revitalizing organizations?
I have a bit of an entrepreneurial streak, so I like challenges, and I like a clean slate where you can re-imagine with a general vision in mind. I like the opportunity to create something.
Was it difficult to re-imagine a beloved icon like Jack London State Historic Park?
The biggest challenge was in looking beyond what the park was to imagine what it could be. Under the old “one stop” model, people came, visited and left. So we began thinking it would be great if people viewed the park as a place to come often because there was always something interesting going on. We also asked people what the park might offer to make them want to come back.
And re-imagining the park meant knowing as much as possible about Jack London himself. I read everything I could about him, and I was lucky to have so many historians and scholars volunteering here to bring him alive and help me relate his life to what we’re doing now.
Does the park get funded in any way by the state?
No. We’re solely responsible for raising all the revenue needed to keep the park open.
I heard that the state removed all technical equipment when it left.
Yes, that’s true. The first couple of months were pretty hectic. We had to put the entire infrastructure together, which included IT, telephone and database systems, as well as procedures and staffing. It was daunting. Fortunately, we got some startup grants from the private California State Parks Foundation to underwrite startup costs.
What does it cost to keep the park functioning?
About $500,000 per year. That includes overall operations, taking care of deferred maintenance, events and offering the kind of environmental programs that will get kids out here.
How are you raising funds?
We’ve put together a twofold revenue plan, earning income from things like the $10 per car entrance fee and the $49 annual pass, and fees for group picnic site reservations, docent tours and entry to the cottage. We’re also promoting rentals for weddings, corporate events, birthdays and anniversaries. It all brings in about $150,000 a year.
People also can become park members at different levels. We’re approaching foundations to underwrite some programs.
And we’re using the park for events such as the fabulous “Broadway Under the Stars” performances this summer, piano recitals, book readings.
We want to be accessible for everyone, so we’re experimenting with a free day on Sundays, since most people who can’t afford $10 tend to work during the week. The first time, we had double the usual number of cars, many with excited kids jumping up and down. We’ll be doing that once a month during spring and summer.
How many people work at the park?
We have eight paid staff. Two are full time, myself and an operations manager who lives on the grounds. And we have 265 volunteers who play a huge role in helping manage the park.
How has the public reacted to changes thus far?
When we first initiated the higher fee at the gate, we thought we’d get push back — but we’ve had no negative reactions. People have been wonderful, even giving additional donations at the gate. It’s like the public is part of a huge team working to keep the park open.
What do you think of the changes you’ve made?
This past weekend I walked through Beauty Ranch, and in the winery ruins a wedding reception was going on. On the cottage terrace, a woman was celebrating her 65th anniversary, and a group of kids was running through the meadow on a nature trek. I thought, the park is really coming alive, with people gathered to enjoy life and celebrate. What could be better?
What’s the future for state parks?
I think public-private partnership is the trend of the future. I don’t see the state budget improving. Our contract ends in five years, but our hope is that, because we are doing so well financially, it will be renewed.
How do you see the park five years from now?
All the deferred maintenance will be taken care of. The trails will be in pristine condition, suitable for competitive events and marathons.
The historical structures will be restored as much as possible. The park will be perceived as a “go to destination” for people who want to enjoy nature.
What would Jack say about the changes?
I think Jack wouldn’t want it any other way. He would be thrilled. He was thinking of creating Beauty Ranch as a haven for bohemians, artists and writers to come together in a retreat, discuss ideas and innovate.
He was an incredibly progressive guy. He would probably say, “Well done, but here’s another idea to consider!”