The sandy trail through pine trees and over sand dunes was only 30 minutes from my home in the city, but the strange beauty of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore seemed like the other side of the world. I was 8 years old, and I’d never traveled beyond my neighborhood. Growing up in Chicago, I was accustomed to sights and sounds associated with city life. For me, entering a place devoid of concrete and streetlights was new and fascinating.
We were walking along the trail and I saw what I believed to be a large dog. But unlike the dogs at home, this one didn’t bark. The tan animal was large, with a head shaped like nothing I’d seen before. I stopped one the leaders of our group and asked him, “What sort of dog is that?” He smiled down at me and said, “That’s a doe, Brandon, a female deer.”
For me, the deer sighting was the highlight of the trip and upon returning home I wanted to learn more about deer and other wild animals.
I believe that everyone involved in conservation work can trace back to one profound moment when their deep fascination with nature began. This was my aha! moment in May 1990, on a sand dune in northwestern Indiana.
Today, I lead others to nature’s mysteries—from Current River float trips to viewing wildlife in Kansas City’s heart—as an MDC education specialist. I hope to ignite that same wonder and curiosity in young people, especially those from city environments.
My fascination with wildlife was ignited but was difficult to build upon because, where I grew up, wildlife was rare and my family did not have a tradition of outdoor exploration. I know the same is true for many students who pass through our nature and outdoor skills classes at the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center, in Kansas City’s urban core. The wetland, prairie and woodland landscaping in the outdoor gardens there display wildflowers and wildlife that some have never seen or thought of before. It’s important for us to find a way to nurture that growing interest.
Aha! Is Only the Beginning
I was blessed because my annual camping trips to Indiana Dunes with a church group became my opportunity to learn about the outdoor world. Later, I became a counselor at a summer camp that specialized in exposing inner-city youth to the outdoors. For many of them, like me at their age, it was their first time in an entirely new environment. Some were instantly captivated while others questioned the logic of leaving the comforts of home to live for a week in a cabin with bunk beds and daddy-longlegs.
As a counselor, I learned how to ease their fears and capitalize on their curiosity. I found that one interesting fact or story about a critter or plant could make a child view the subject in a positive light. I also discovered that if I found a way for the child to place the object someplace in the context of their lives, they would always remember the lesson.
One example involved a hike amongst sassafras trees. Sassafras root was used to create root beer, and when I snapped a root, the familiar scent of root beer was instantly recalled by the children. Furthermore, the children were able to identify sassafras by the mitten-shaped leaves because, coincidently, they are the same shape as the state of Michigan on a map.
My interest in animals led me to pursue a career as a veterinarian. However, as an animal science major, I worked three summers as an in-tern at the Cleveland Metropark Zoo. Though I was able to work with every animal in the zoo’s extensive collection, I found I most enjoyed talking with guests about the care and personalities of the animals. Once again, I discovered how fulfilling it was to share nature with others. So I changed course. My graduate studies focused on human-wildlife interaction and outdoor education in urban settings.
Later, I assisted with a study in Kansas City that evaluated how inner-city children perceive wildlife. We wanted to know if their outlook could be changed by an education program. We interviewed the children both before and after the program. Once a week for four months, the children learned about ecology with a focus on urban plants and animals. We discussed habitats, tree identification and food chains. At the end, we found that the children were far more positive toward wildlife. Even the children with the most negative viewpoints before the class had an improved outlook. This was important to me because these were children from urban areas and, like me, they were not afforded the opportunity to learn much about the natural world. After the study I knew that environmental education had to be part of my future career.
I was hired as an education specialist at the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center in January 2010. I now have the privilege of teaching hundreds of students from the Kansas City metropolitan area about nature and wildlife management.
One of my favorite events as an MDC education specialist was helping to lead a three-day July float trip for 24 boys with the Urban Ranger Corps. The Urban Ranger Corps is a program that provides summer jobs to high school-aged boys in Kansas City. Through these jobs the boys also learn life skills such as punctuality and teamwork.
Canoeing and camping involved skills and surroundings that were foreign to many of the Rangers. Some were anxious about living outdoors for three days. As the flotilla pushed off of the banks of the Current River, no one knew what awaited the group as it traveled down the river. At first, it seemed as if the canoes were able to find every log and gravel bar. For some of the boys, this only confirmed the worries they had prior to the trip. But with enthusiasm and knowledge, Discovery Center staffers guided them past their fears. The boys all became adept at maneuvering their canoes.
One of the most profound moments during the trip occurred the first night beside the campfire on the gravel bar. The boys discussed the differences between their environments in the city and on the river. Although not all of the boys were enamored by the outdoors, the majority said that they appreciated the serenity found in nature. Stories about birds and reptiles seen that day were retold as friends enjoyed the simple joy of sharing a campfire. They talked about the day’s fishing and their first catch of goggle-eye and smallmouth bass.
But there are outdoor lessons we can teach within the city, too.
In March, noted author and ornithologist John C. Robinson made a presentation at the Discovery Center and also led a birding hike for youth at the Burr Oak Woods Conservation Area in Blue Springs. Robinson’s book Birding for Everyone focuses on how mentors can foster an appreciation for birds in children of color. Light the spark and fan the flame to help urban children learn about the natural world, he said, even if it’s as simple as understanding birds that come to a backyard feeder.
We offer the same outreach daily at the Discovery Center by teaching children that there are many paths to nature and they’re open to all.
When as a child I saw a lone whitetail deer at the Dunes Seashore, I had no idea that it would lead me to teach others about wildlife, forests, fishes and prairies. I am glad that it did, and I watch the faces of the young people we serve, searching for that “aha!” expression that tells me nature has touched their hearts, and that they want more. I look forward to helping them find it.