Revered Illinois alumna’s $45M ‘visionary gift’ lifts connection to a new level

Revered Illinois alumna’s $45M ‘visionary gift’ lifts connection to a new level
Revered Illinois alumna’s $45M ‘visionary gift’ lifts connection to a new level

URBANA, Ill. - Strengthening families and communities through gathering and connection have been important themes throughout Doris Kelley Christopher’s life and career. Now, a $45 million gift from the University of Illinois alumna will support the creation of an engagement-rich center located in the Arboretum on the Urbana-Champaign campus.    

The Doris Kelley Christopher Illinois Extension Center will serve as the future home of Illinois Extension, uniting six state Extension offices currently on campus into one vibrant, welcoming space. The center – which will be integrated into the open spaces of the Arboretum – will serve as a bridge between discovery research conducted at the U of I and the translation of that work into communities around the state and beyond. Illinois Extension, the flagship outreach effort of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, offers educational programs in all of Illinois' 102 counties. This center will serve as the gathering space where statewide Extension and 4-H efforts come together to synergize.  

“Together, Illinois Extension and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) embody the super power of connection through education, research, and outreach, making the Extension Center an ideal addition to our campus and communities statewide,” says ACES Dean Kim Kidwell. “This abundantly generous gift will foster more access, more opportunity, and more collaboration among Illinois Extension personnel; university faculty, staff, and students; community members from across Illinois; and stakeholders to work together with commitment and purpose to make the world a better place for everyone.”

The Extension Center will serve as a destination portal for visitors to campus featuring pathways, demonstration/teaching gardens, and outdoor classroom/gathering spaces. Located on the south end of campus along Lincoln Avenue, the center will provide ready access to high-tech research and education facilities, as well as the U of I Research Park.

For Christopher, the founder of Pampered Chef, ties to Illinois Extension are both personal and professional. After graduating from U of I, Christopher spent her early career working for Illinois Extension, teaching home economics to adults and 4-H youth in DuPage County.

Over 40 years ago, Christopher started Pampered Chef from the basement of her suburban home. The company blossomed into a leading cookware company, providing high-quality, everyday cooking tools and inspiration delivered by a now international community of 65,000 consultants. In 2002, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway acquired Pampered Chef, and to this day, Christopher still remains active in the company as Founder and Chairman.

“My early career, spent in Extension, exposed me to working with the adult learner,” says Christopher. “Teaching and advising adults on the full gamut of home skills proved to be career-changing for me. I fell in love with teaching adults. That, combined with all I had learned as a Home Economics student at U of I, came together as the foundation for the Pampered Chef business.

“I am grateful to the university and to Illinois Extension for setting me on the path to love my work for my entire career and I am delighted to see the Extension Center come to life. It will truly provide a wonderful place for U of I Extension to carry on its important work and connection throughout the state and beyond,” she adds.

The 160-acre Arboretum includes gardens, groves, collections, and habitats. It serves as a "living laboratory" for students from natural resources and plant sciences to fine and applied arts, as well as an oasis of natural beauty for the public. The Extension Center project is part of the university’s larger Master Plan.

“Because of this historic gift, the Extension Center will become the hub for Illinois Extension’s mission of translating and transforming discoveries, new knowledge, and technologies created and developed on campus into programs, materials, and services that are valuable and relevant to residents of Illinois,” says Illinois Extension Director Shelly Nickols-Richardson. “This visionary gift will allow Illinois Extension to serve generations of future producers, farmers, ranchers, business owners, entrepreneurs, youths, and families and to connect them to world-class research and innovations.”

In 2000, Christopher and Pampered Chef assisted in establishing the Family Resiliency Program in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. In 2006, her legacy of philanthropy continued as the Doris Kelley Christopher Hall was completed and became home to the Family Resiliency Center. The list of generous support also includes Bevier Hall food lab and café renovations and Illinois Promise, which provides affordability of higher education for students from the lowest income levels.

With its opening projected for 2024, Christopher’s most recent impact will be far-reaching.

“Doris Kelley Christopher’s generosity has been creating opportunities at this university to help all of us create new and stronger connections with our families and our communities,” says Chancellor Robert J. Jones. “With this new gift, she is once again helping us reimagine how we can bring people together in new ways with lasting impact.” 

Pending U of I Board of Trustees approval, a ground breaking ceremony is being planned for the U of I Annual Foundation Weekend, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 2021.