By Sylvia Small

Claire Waggenspack Hayes says one of her proudest accomplishments leading the Dunwoody Nature Center is something many parents might understand: the center built a tree house.

“My educators and I thought a tree house would be a wonderful idea,” said the 58-year-old Hayes, who is retiring from the Nature Center at the end of February after 10 years as its executive director. “The kids could get up in the tree canopy to observe nature up close. The kids were all over the idea, and people were excited when they saw the architectural concept drawing.”

Of course, constructing this tree house was a bit more complicated than sticking a simple lumber platform up in a tree. Specialized construction methods were needed to preserve the Nature Center’s wetlands habitat. It took six years to complete the tree house project, which cost $124,000 — $12,000 of it raised through the first Dunwoody Dash fundraising race.

It paid off. “One of the Girl Scout troops was camping overnight and saw a screech owl land on a tree next to them.”

Hayes succeeded Deron Davis, DNC’s previous director. She said she found the job through Opportunity Knocks, a service that helps connect job candidates with non-profit jobs.

Donna Burt, a board member for 10 years, said Hayes has “wonderful connections” with educational, ecological and environmental organizations and has helped increase the center’s public profile. “As a volunteer, Claire helped expand my horizons,” Burt said. “She made me and others more aware of how the environment affects nature itself.”

Hayes said she is retiring so she can return to her native Louisiana to work with waterways preservation groups and spend more time with her family and friends. Her husband will retire from his job during the last half of the year.

The Dunwoody Nature Center inspires a love of nature and cultivates environmental understanding and stewardship by conserving and enhancing the 22-acre Dunwoody Park; by educating children, families and adults about the natural world and their place in it; and by motivating environmental awareness and responsible action.

The center occupies a building and property that once had been a private home. DeKalb County took the property over around 1972 and community volunteers converted it to a nature center in 1990.

The facility has been a Dunwoody city park since June, when the city took over county park properties.

Hayes said DNC has experienced considerable growth during the last 10 years. The center’s staff includes the executive director, a program manager and a part-time office manager. There are a “couple of dozen” contract educators who teach summer camps and interact with school field trips and other special programs. Hayes said volunteers last year contributed 6,000 hours of work to the center, which she equates to the hours that would be worked by three fulltime employees.

Last year, the center worked with the Georgia Center for Nonprofits to develop a strategic plan. “We solicited input from the community, board members, major donors and city leaders,” she said. “It’s a wonderful plan that will give us guidance for the next three to five years. It’s appropriate that the new executive director will be able to implement that plan after my retirement.”

One goal is to increase its membership from the current 400-person level. The center is targeting young families and adults who want to continue learning about nature.

One program planned for this year is called Breakfast With the Birds.

Perhaps brunch can be served in the tree house.