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Growing like prairie grass: the story behind Symphony in the Flint Hills

Sandy Dorsey, volunteer and education coordinator for Symphony in the Flint Hills, speaks with two volunteers as they arrive at Deer Horn Ranch, 2017’s Symphony in the Flint Hills site. (Photo by Seth Crawford)

By Jeff Herndon

Kansas prairie grass grows fast.  Burn it, and ranchers will tell you there is almost instantaneous growth.  It hasn’t quite been instantaneous for Symphony in the Flint Hills, the non-profit organization that puts together the annual Symphony in the Flint Hills, but it has quickly grown into a diversified organization educating wide swaths of the American public about the Flint Hills ecosystem.

Originally a board of about a dozen volunteers, it took two years of planning, organizing and securing resources to pull off the first Symphony in the Flint Hills that took place at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in 2006.

“We were a working board,” said Louise Carlin, an original member of the volunteer-based board that formed in 2004 and now art & merchandise manager for the organization.  “We actually did physical work.  We were the staff.”

The organization hired its first two employees in 2006, just prior to that first signature event, when Emily Hunter resigned from the board to become the organization’s director and Rita Spinden was hired as a part-time bookkeeper.  Later that year, the non-profit hired Kelly Tastove as volunteer coordinator.  Today, they employ just six staff – including Carlin, Spinden and Tastove, who have a combined 35 years of experience with the organization – while taking on the mission of heightening appreciation and knowledge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie.  Those six staff members leverage the support of up to 700 volunteers and a 15-member Board of Directors to put together one of Kansas’ great educational events, the Symphony in the Flint Hills.  Their combined efforts have paid off, year after year.

“It’s become so much more than regional,” Tastove, who is now development officer for the organization, said.  “When this is all over, I’ll figure out how many states we sold tickets to.  It grows every year.”

Christy Davis, Executive Director of Symphony in the Flint Hills, educates this year’s crowd about minority cattle drovers from the late 19th century. Prior to becoming the organization’s director, Davis founded her own company that assists property owners in registering their properties on the national historic register and securing funding for their preservation projects. She also worked for the Kansas Historical Society as a preservation planner and deputy state historic preservation officer for almost a decade. (Photo by Jeff Herndon)

Just as the organization and the exposure of Symphony in the Flint Hills have grown, their efforts to educate are no longer restricted to just that signature event; the organization now sponsors other events throughout the year.

“We try to grow (the organization) in our other activities that we do year-round,” Tastove said.  The Summer Roundup Benefit Concert and WoodFest, sponsored in cooperation with YMCA’s Camp Wood, are two examples of the organization’s expanded efforts.  Co-sponsoring and hosting other events not only enables growth but also preserves the quality of the symphony event.

“If you keep growing that number (attendance at Symphony in the Flint Hills) you can’t give them the experience you want them to walk away with,” Tastove said.

To guide the organization in its mission, an education committee adopts a new theme every year.  

“Once we embrace a theme, we adopt if for everything we do throughout the year,” Christy Davis, director of Symphony in the Flint Hills, said.

While Kansas’ Flint Hills cover less than 10,000 of the United States’ nearly 3.8 million square miles, some think educating people about the area is of the utmost importance.  Jay Price, chair of Wichita State University’s history department and one of this year’s speakers at the symphony’s education tents, reminds us that generations of people thought the deserts were ugly until shown the beauty of them through education programs.

“It’s time for the grasslands of the North American continent to be appreciated in the same way,” he said.