Todd Pilon is one of those odd ducks who knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up.

Todd Pilon is one of those odd ducks who knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up.

He's 33 now, a senior producer at the local public television station, WTVP Channel 47. But to get back to the odd-duck stage:

By fifth grade, he was running sound for his grade school's Christmas program. By eighth grade, he was videotaping graduations and weddings and creating videos with friends. By high school, he was taking the TV production class at Peoria Richwoods High School, though he was a student at Peoria High.

By the end of high school, he was working with an award-winning cinematographer and videographer of groundbreaking independent films. He spent a frenzied week during the summer in rural Washburn during the Sun Foundation's annual Arts and Science in the Woods workshops.

Thousands of people passionately involved in something - art, nature, science, music, the environment, health, education, architecture, something - have passed through the 500-acre farm where the Sun Foundation is based or the myriad other locations where the organization spreads the gospel of art and science and their intricate connections to the river of life.

While many may not have been passionate about something when they arrived at a Sun Foundation event, often they are passionate when they leave.

Joan and Bob Ericksen started the Sun Foundation 35 years ago on little but passion. The total budget that first year was $5,750, of which 73 percent came from private contributions. While Sun Foundation's reputation and its budget have grown ($389,000 this year), its early dependence on private donations has returned with a vengeance as other sources of funding continue to dry up.

At points in the early to mid-1990s, the organization could count on the Illinois Arts Council to supply more than $100,000 in grants, or as much as 48 percent of its annual budgets. But state budget cuts took their toll on the Sun Foundation as well as most arts programs. By 2004, grant funding began the steady decline that saw grants total $39,900 in the 2008 fiscal year, or just 10 percent of the budget.

Between a state budget crisis and a general economic meltdown, the organization is like every other not-for-profit agency - trying to offset declines in both public and private funding. So it is appealing to the force of creative passion that originally gave birth to the Sun Foundation. This time around, however, the organization has 35 years' worth of children, three generations of alumni of Sun Foundation programs, to reach out to for financial support.

"All I can see now, is we have to appeal to families and former students," Ericksen says. "We've got to come full circle to make sure this generation has the same opportunities they had."

Pilon, 33, is among those who have come full circle already. He graduated from teaching assistant to videographer to teaching video classes at Art and Science in the Woods.

For the past 11 years, he has taken a week of vacation from WTVP during June to teach the class. He also supplies equipment, everything from sound and video editing systems to video cameras.

As a teen, Pilon says Sun Foundation exposed him to people who provided avenues to gain more experience. "Now, it's about passing along that knowledge and, hopefully, inspiring the next generation."


Laure Adams is passionate about practicing the pioneer trade of blacksmithing in the historic buildings she had restored in Metamora.

Adams learned basic blacksmithing through Sun Foundation's annual September blacksmithing workshops held in conjunction with the Illinois Valley Blacksmithing Association. She had already restored Metamora's old blacksmith shop, along with three other historic properties in Metamora.

"It was a building worth saving," she says. "So here I am, I've got a building, I've got some equipment, I thought I may as well learn to blacksmith."

She's trying to create an awareness of the craft, something that would have been more difficult if blacksmith Gary Jameson, the blacksmithing association and the Sun Foundation hadn't been restoring awareness for more than 20 years.


Kelly June was too young to realize what she would become passionate about when she began taking violin lessons through the Sun Foundation's Suzuki School of Music. She was 3 years old.

At 24, she looks at her years of formal lessons as a formative experience.

"I think I formed a lot of my personality through them," she says. Not only did she learn to appreciate music and the arts, she learned the importance of discipline, hard work and determination. Suzuki was influential enough in her life that she wrote all of her college application essays on the musical instruction model.

June teaches special education classes at Limestone Community High School. Occasionally, she performs for her students, thereby introducing new audiences to the passion she discovered at a young age.

Sun Foundation is probably best known for the Suzuki School, Art and Science in the Woods, environmental education programs and the annual Clean Water Celebration, which brings several thousand school children to Peoria's Civic Center each April for seminars on conserving and preserving clean water.

Less well known, perhaps, is the Sun Foundation's mission of developing arts and science programs for under-served communities. Rural grade schools in Marshall County, for instance, had limited access to professional artists and scientists - or specialized art and science instruction - until the Sun Foundation began offering residency programs and teacher-training workshops.

Jan Bakewell, a retired teacher from Wenona, recalls some of the workshops she attended in the mid-1970s. What she learned inspired her to focus more on the environment and hands-on science projects in the classroom.

"They took us through so many things I had never done," she says. "It opened my eyes, and I thought if I can do this, my kids can too. They were the catalyst."

Pam Adams can be reached at (309) 686-3245 or