The Forest Preserves boasts a large network of volunteers doing incredible work all across the County like restoring habitat, monitoring plant and animal populations, patrolling our trails, supporting special events and so much more. Though many volunteers fly solo, like Trail Watch volunteers, or work in small groups, like stewardship volunteers, each individual belongs to this larger, like-minded community of people who love nature and care for the Preserves.
“I was teaching when I got an email to become part of the Master Naturalist program, and in that program you had to put in volunteer hours, mostly with the Forest Preserves. The first places I volunteered were at Kickapoo and Whistler and I just enjoyed it so much that this is primarily where I volunteer now. I became a Co-Steward at Kickapoo but I still volunteer here at Whistler. With the proximity to the city, I think people are surprised to learn these places are here. They are both beautiful.
“It gives me peace to be out in the woods. My parents are from eastern Tennessee so we got to spend time in the Smoky Mountains. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy nature. We have a great love of the Smokies so maybe being out here is a way or reliving that time, and having it still be part of my life because we don’t have as much green space in the city. But we’re getting there.
“I’m always encouraging people to come out. I think it’s partly wellness. We always see people in their cars here resting, maybe after a long day at work. We want them to get out of their cars to at least walk around the path and maybe at some point we can get them to come over and do restoration. I guess the bottom line is, if we can get people to understand that they’re benefiting more than even the nature, we can get them to help restore it.”
“One day I opened a local paper. There was a little article in there written by Judy Pollock that said something like, ‘If you want to restore a prairie back to its original health meet at this person’s house and get on the team.’ I saw it and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is exactly what I want to do. I want to really get my hands dirty.’
“I don’t have this natural background. I don’t have a science background. I have a public relations background. So I’m sitting on the couch [at this meeting] and I’m listening to people and nobody really wants to raise their hand or speak up too much because we’re all still trying to feel this out, and it’s still very new. But I said, ‘Wow, well I don’t know about the science side of this but I sure know that we need energy, and outreach, and PR and I can contribute that.’
“I came out to Orland Grassland then on my own, never having been in here, just driven by it. I walked in and I’m telling you, it just stole my heart away. It was—I don’t know—love at first sight, the lightning bolt, whatever that is and I knew I had to do this. I was so fortunate to have Stephen Packard as my mentor, he would always be the person when I said, ‘I can’t do that!’ who said, ‘Oh yes you can!’ On the train I was reading field guides while everyone else was reading novels. I was up until 2 am making spreadsheets and then getting up for work later that morning. I was very consumed with it.
“I use my own experience to talk to people and reassure them. I say, ‘Look, I didn’t know anything when I came here in 2002.’ People come from all kinds of fields here. Nobody is a scientist but we are all very generous in teaching and passing on knowledge to others. That is a big boon because what happens is, when you’re teaching someone, you’re also sharing your spirit and your joy and it comes across in your teaching.
“I think Orland Grassland is unique because it represents our native heritage. We’re prairie here. People don’t understand that land can be very good without trees on it and there’s so much in here other than trees. Orland is almost 1,000 aces. Just to be able to look in a direction and see no trees, no towers, no houses, just the sky touching the earth, and you multiply that by the millions of acres of what we had here, you can begin to get a sense of it.”
Inspired by the photo blog Humans of New York, Kris DaPra and Joanna Huyck of the Volunteer Resources team will be working together to introduce you to your fellow volunteers. You’ll get to know the names and faces of the people (like you) without whom the preserves could simply not exist. We hope that you’ll enjoy this ongoing project, and we look forward to interviewing YOU at an upcoming workday, on your monitoring route, during your Trail Watch patrol or anywhere else you make a difference. Thank you for being a volunteer!