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Fridays with the Branigans

Dave and Kathy Branigan at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center.
Dave and Kathy Branigan at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center.

There are many things to admire about the Branigans. They both had long careers as educators—Kathy with 34 years in various roles at Chicago Public Schools and Dave as a customer trainer for several software companies and as an application development teacher at DeVry. They are also the couple you want to talk to if you are looking to uncover the secrets to a happy marriage. They’ve been married 44 years and still go to a movie together every Wednesday morning.

But what’s perhaps most admirable is how they’ve dedicated themselves to volunteering for nature. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a volunteer role that Kathy and Dave don’t hold in the Forest Preserves. Stewardship? That’s Dave. Volunteer Librarian at Sagawau? Kathy signed up the day the opportunity was posted. Adopt-A-Site? Check. Trail Watch? Double check. Nature Ambassadors? But of course!

Like many others, Kathy and Dave learned about volunteer opportunities with the Forest Preserves through the University of Illinois Extension’s Master Naturalist program. “No pun intended, but I’ve always had a natural love for those things,” explains Kathy. “I’ve always been fascinated. We don’t have children and we love to travel and most of our trips are nature related. It’s something we’ve done all along and never labeled it, but I think the kick start [to volunteering] was Master Naturalist.”

Most recently, Brigit Holt, Master Naturalist program coordinator, reached out to Kathy about an opportunity with Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center leading outdoor programming for families and children on Fridays. Even though Forest Preserves nature centers are closed on Fridays, Little Red Schoolhouse still attracts a number of people looking to explore the grounds on a nice day. Kathy explains that at first, they thought they would look at the schedule and select a few dates, but it quickly became something they would take on almost every week. And so began their stints under a tent by the pond, talking about dragonflies, butterflies, cicadas and bees, and facilitating a kid favorite—pond dipping.

“I think of when one Friday we did pond dipping. I had one little boy and we’re standing there moving the net around. I said to him ‘You never know what might be in there’ and he says to me, ‘Maybe a shark?’ and I said ‘No, I don’t think so…’ and he says, ‘Of course not! I was just testing you!’” Kathy recalls. “Truly, truly, I’m not being sappy, but it almost brought tears to my eyes. I laughed and I thought, ‘There it is.’ That’s what I miss from little kids. They are 100% truthful. I love ‘em.”

And as it turns out, it’s not just children who are full of surprises. “I find it amazing how childlike the parents are, or even some of the older people who come by who aren’t parents, but especially when you’re by the pond looking for frogs or looking for snakes,” Dave says. “They are just like the kids. They get so excited when they see a bullfrog or so excited when they see a snake squirming over the lily pads.”

The impact the pair had this summer isn’t lost on Little Red Schoolhouse staff. “Kathy and Dave provided a much needed service, especially with us being so busy here. They’re personable and were able to engage the visitors, both adults and children, and they were fun to work with. We appreciate them giving us all their Fridays!” says Deborah Silic, assistant director at the nature center.

Kathy and Dave both believe that everyone has the responsibility to give back, and often encourage others to find their own role in the Forest Preserves.

“No matter what volunteer role you take, I think the physiological and mental benefits are just so awesome.” says Kathy. “You’re in the outdoors. You’re in the forest. It’s healthy. It’s relaxing. There’s no question of the positiveness of being out there. None at all.”

There’s also no question about the positiveness that Kathy and Dave impart on others by volunteering. None at all.