Updated: Oct 7
As the Blue Lotus Center approaches the culmination of its 20th anniversary celebration – an open house that will be held at the center on June 11 – we’ve been reflecting on our roots.
The Blue Lotus story actually begins more than 70 years ago, when our property came into the Bliffert family. According to our cofounder Fred Bliffert, his father, Robert, “the Milwaukee lumber baron,” enjoyed taking long Sunday drives in the country, “mostly to get away from his spoiled, unruly children - of which I was the youngest.”
For Robert, it was love at first sight and, according to Fred, his father negotiated a deal on the spot to buy the farm. For several years, it was primarily a weekend retreat for Robert where he relaxed and tinkered, adding a modern wood addition to the stone house and building a pool in the late 1950s. Once Fred and his brother and sister got their driver’s licenses, they too came to appreciate the secluded beauty of the farm and began using it in the ‘60s for high school pool parties—until Robert caught wind of the gatherings and banned his kids from the farm for several years.
Fast forward to 1999. Robert passed away after years of poor health, and Fred and his wife, Susan, our other cofounder, inherited the farm. On their first trip back out to the property as its new owners, they found it in disarray—overgrown with buckthorn and other volunteer trees and strewn with miscellaneous farm implements, including an ancient tractor ditched in the woods.
“It looked completely abandoned, and we guessed it must have been unused for almost twenty years,” Susan said. “The swimming pool was filled with mud. The barn was filled with broken furniture and rusty tools. There was a 20-foot-high garbage dump.”
Still, Fred and Susan were struck again by the farm’s quiet wonder and returned to contemplating how they might share it with more people who could benefit from spending time there, enjoying nature and relaxing. “Even before Fred and I were married, we had a glimmer of thinking it would be great to start a summer camp for people with special needs at the farm,” Susan said. “Then we forgot about it, because that possibility wasn’t even in the cards.”
To make the farm usable again was a gigantic undertaking. “We worked for about six years on weekends, just getting rid of stuff. We had jobs and we were raising young children, so it was just bit by bit,” Susan said. “It reminded me of a book I used to read to our kids, Old Farm, New Farm, about people who buy an old farm where everything is in shambles—run down and broken. Then they slowly brought that to life. That's kind of what we did.”
Eventually, thanks to the hands-on help the Blifferts received from many of their friends, the farm was restored to its earlier glory, and Fred and Susan began sharing it organically with a nonprofit serving developmentally challenged children and adults—came out for a trial-run picnic.
The day out was such a success, with kids squealing with excitement as they explored the quaint old curiosities of the barn and ran along newly groomed trails in the woods that Susan and Fred knew their idea had potential. They continued to invite groups that serve people facing different life challenges to use the farm for picnics, fishing and other forms of outdoor rest, rejuvenation and recreation—and they continued to see the joy that these visits brought their guests, who might otherwise face barriers in accessing nature.
As their plans evolved, it became clear to Susan and Fred that – even with help from friends – they could not support the farm on their own. “That's when we looked into setting up a nonprofit. We went that route so that we could raise more money,” Susan said. Fred and Susan applied for 501c3 nonprofit status, and in November of 2002, the Blue Lotus Center was born.
Over the past two decades, there have been many important developments at the Blue Lotus Center, and they have usually occurred right when the center was ready to grow and change, Susan said. “This part of the magic of this place: At the right time, the right people and the right resources have appeared.”
One of their first milestone projects was building the center’s outdoor bathrooms in 2004 It wasn’t a huge project, but it was important, and, after the Blifferts put out the word that the center needed the toilets, a crew of volunteers stepped up to make it happen.
Another turning point came about when Susan met Ed Miller, who was part of the Metropolitan Builders Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, at a fundraising event held at the farm in 2006. She explained to Ed that the center needed sheltered space with a kitchen for the growing number of groups who wanted to visit beyond summertime, and Ed suggested she apply to the MBA for one of its philanthropic grants. The grant deadline was three days away, and Susan hustled to write a proposal, but her efforts paid off: The MBA ended up selecting the Blue Lotus as the beneficiary of its 2007 building grant.
“Blue Lotus was unanimously chosen for that year’s building project, mostly because we are diversified, in that we don’t serve people with one disability or disease. Everyone is welcome, no matter what their life situation is,” Susan said. “It was a unanimous decision made by 50 people, and that’s how we got the pavilion.”
Through that experience, Susan and Fred met contractors and other people from the MBA who have gone on to donate additional work or funding. “That gave us a much broader scope of people who started to know what we were doing and who we were, and they were all excited and happy to help,” Susan said.
The past 20 years have also brought countless unforgettable experiences and happy surprises. For Susan, one of the biggest surprises is “the convolution of networking—where somebody might say something to somebody else, and somebody else to somebody else—and then it finally comes back to the Blue Lotus. What we put out always seems to come back in positive ways,” she said.
According to Fred, he and Susan “never had any thought of hoarding (the farm) for ourselves.” But even though he’s always known it was a special place that he wanted to share with others, seeing guests enjoy their time together at the Blue Lotus farm still moves him deeply.
He remembers a visit to the farm from a group from Golden Pearl, an adult day care center in Saukville. “A facilitator was playing guitar and singing songs that she wrote herself. All the guests were singing and dancing around the campfire. They had gathered in a big circle after all their activities—boating, hiking, and swimming—at the end of the day.”
“This facilitator was clearly an angel,” Fred said, “All the facilitators we see are angels: patient, loving, comforting. What their people need, they are there to provide, one hundred percent—just as we are there one hundred percent for all our guests.”