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Mom Susan Westhoff of Leslie Science and Nature Center in Ann Arbor

The great outdoors is a job, a joy and a family affair for the executive director of this Washtenaw County gem – and her two young kids love that Critter House

Not many kids grow up with a second backyard that sprawls 50 acres and teems with regal raptors, forest-flanked trails and something called the "Critter House."

But little Eleanor, 5, and Samuel, 2, really lucked out. That's because their mom, Susan Westhoff, is executive director of this fairytale setting: the Leslie Science and Nature Center in Ann Arbor.

A year after starting her post, Westhoff – who used to joke she'd love to run a nature center or a kids' bookshop – is still pinching herself.

Susan Westhoff

"It's a rare treat in so many ways," says Westhoff, 36. "It's an absolute dream job I never, ever thought I would have."

Especially when you consider her career path kicked off with a blast – literally. She earned a bachelor's degree in trumpet performance from the University of Michigan.

"I loved the sound of it – and the expressiveness," says Westhoff, who picked up the brass in eighth grade. Music was plentiful growing up in Canton. Her mom was a church organist, and her dad built and restored pianos and organs. And, in fact, her grandfather played stand-in horn for the jazz acts that once toured in town.

"Our family kind of revolves around education and the arts," she says.

For Westhoff, it wound up being a gateway. In college, she spent summers working up at Interlochen Center for the Arts' camps – where she caught the bug for nonprofit work. That spun into gigs at the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor and, next, the Chicago Symphony. At both, she headed up youth education.

"One of the things that really inspires me is watching a child have the 'light-bulb moment,'" she says. "Seeing them be exposed to a new concept, new animal, new instrument – whatever it is – that moment is so special."

Plus, Chicago is where she met husband, Jim, a bassoonist. The two also shared a passion for camping and backpacking. While dating, they hoofed the Ozarks. "We've always known that would be a part of our family moving forward."

It spurred a side-trek to Colorado, where the couple decided to live among the mountains. After holding a high-stress job as interim executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance, Westhoff set sites back on the Midwest.

Following another stint in Chicago, this time with the Trinity Irish Dance Booster Club, the Leslie job popped up. Westhoff fell for the Tree Town gem in a hurry.

"It's really safe and comfortable and easy," she says. "The birds, critters – we have them open and free to the public, intentionally.

"We want people to come and experience the frogs and the toads and the turtles and ask questions and connect."

In that spirit, she's sparked up monthly Sunday "Fireside Fun" events. Folks gather, for free, around a bonfire for chat and guitar-led sing-alongs.

Susan's Faves

"It's been really, really successful," Westhoff says. "Communities (are) built."

The center offers tons of camps and programs, too, for kids in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. Her daughter has already done several – like one on "decomposers."

"She understands more of what happens under the dirt," says mom. In fact, this past summer, when Jim was installing a fence around the family's home, Elly marched around making sure worms weren't in the way. "I love that she's hands-on and she's looking for those things and engaging with it – and not scared."

She's seen the same phenomenon with adults: "They've never been within five feet of a bald eagle. To have that happen is incredibly moving and powerful."

That Critter House is Elly's favorite. She makes a beeline to pet and feed the rabbits (you'll also find creatures that slither, hop and crawl here). Sam, meanwhile, is content to toddle freely anywhere there's open ground. In nicer weather, the whole family even picnics at outdoor tables, also free to the public.

Westhoff's mom-sense has been a job asset, too. For one thing, she's boosted the Critter House hours. She's also been mindful of scheduling preschool programs around naptime – and hosting concurrent fun for older kids (i.e., siblings).

And kids are central to creating key partnerships. Including one with U-M's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital – which really hits close to home. This is where the Westhoffs now take little Sam to treat a heart defect he was born with.

"I have a very unique perspective," says Westhoff – who recalls her long hospital stay in Chicago, when Sam had his first surgery. "I missed spring. I saw it go by," through the window. "How hard that must be for children who are 10 or 12."

Now, Leslie programs are visiting Mott to "bring the nature indoors" for kids, staff and visitors, Westhoff explains – in a safe and day-brightening way.

It all fits the original vision of Dr. Eugene and Emily Leslie, who once owned the land. In giving it to the city of Ann Arbor, they requested it be a space for kids.

Knowing she's carrying out that legacy – and being able to awaken children to the outdoors – is like music to Westhoff's ears.

"That is my favorite. It's what inspires me and keeps me going," she says. "It's a complete honor to be here."

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