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Celebration of Service

Saving the natural world one acre at a time

IBM retiree Peggy Hill Holton helps the Norwalk Land Trust preserve a tidal estuary

After 34 years of working around the globe for IBM, Peggy Hill Holton retired and found herself with a lot of time on her hands. “It was nice for a year, but quite honestly, I was bored.”

That’s when Peggy, a life-long nature-lover, went looking for and found her next “career” as a volunteer with the Norwalk Land Trust. The land trust works to balance nature and development by acquiring land and preserving it in its natural state for the benefit of Norwalk, Connecticut, USA, residents and future generations. “When you talk about land trust work out west, you talk about hundreds of acres. But we’re on the East Coast, so there’s not a lot of undeveloped land here. Around here, we talk in tens of acres – if we’re lucky” says Peggy.

Holton has been on the Board of Directors since 2004 and Vice President since 2006, during a time of big growth for the Norwalk Land Trust. “With IBM you always have targets and growth plans, and I thought the land trust was moving slowly, so I shared my concerns with other board members. We undertook two very good and challenging projects,” Peggy laughs.

A US$4 million mortgage

One project was extending the property at the Trust’s Farm Creek Preserve. The property at Farm Creek has been the most ambitious project of the Norwalk Land Trust – and its most expensive. The trust already owned three pieces of property and the fourth and final piece would join the other three to form an unbroken 16 acre preserve on the Farm Creek tidal estuary which empties into Long Island Sound.

The 2.2 acre property became available after landowner Edward Hart Jr. died and his waterfront plot went up for auction. The land was purchased for US $4 million by Charles Schoendorf, an insurance broker who had never heard of the Norwalk Land Trust. “We were alerted to his purchase and knew he might put the property back on the market, so we approached him about a conservation easement,” tells Peggy. “He said he’d hold the property, and pay the mortgage – along with US $40,000 in annual property taxes – while the Land Trust raised the funds to buy him out.”

However, the trust had never had to raise money to buy property before and to compound problems, the global recession hit in the middle of their fund raising campaign. But by 2008, the group had already raised $2 million, and Schoendorf sold the trust the property and agreed to carry the remainder of the mortgage. Later, the Conservation Fund carried the mortgage at a reduced rate.

“So we continued the fund raising, but now as the property owners, we are able to make real use of it. The Tombros Foundation gave us quite a boost with a US $500,000 challenge grant matching 50% of new donations. In total, we raised US $4.9 million in a little more than four years and retired the mortgage. We got over 40% of the households in the local community to donate.” says Peggy.

IBM skills help in retirement, too

Peggy says that she draws on some of the skills she gained at IBM to help her in her work with the land trust. “I learned at IBM that you don’t go unprepared to any kind of a meeting and I gained a lot of experience in structuring information. I worked in Asia in the 1980s, and I had to learn how to approach groups with different perspectives.” That experience translated for Peggy when she worked with neighbors, politicos, and other land trust members. “As a team we had an enormous wealth of experience. I knew about presenting information in a logical manner and soft selling, which helps when you’re trying to be persuasive – whether marketing printers or fundraising.”

Peggy feels a sense of urgency about her work with the land trust and will continue volunteering with them in the future. “Many of the 4th grade school children that the Land Trust brings to Farm Creek have no awareness of nature. We’re losing these places and the kids aren’t getting the experience with the natural world. Do you know that one girl wondered if there were piranhas in the river? It’s important to get people out there.”

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.