A Dedicated Naturalist
As an Interpretive Naturalist for Elkhart County Parks, what I really love is to be part of those ‘ah-ha’ moments that kids sometimes have when I’m presenting or leading an outdoor event.
Maybe that’s why Reptile and Amphibian is usually my favorite exhibition, and one of my favorite topics to present on. I just love seeing when their eyes go super big, and they’re clearly amazed and enthralled by something I’m showing them – that’s not an easy response to get out of kids, anymore. There’s nothing like being a part of something like that. We have so many wonderful events and activities planned this time of year, there is literally something to do for everyone. Spring and fall are magical times to be outdoors in our area, learning about nature.
I’ve been with Elkhart County Parks since 2001, so I’m sneaking up on 23 years as a naturalist here. These days my work involves running education programs and presentations for kids and students and other people in our community. Most of the time I’m coordinating and presenting for field trips – schools coming out to Ox Bow Park, or one of our other parks, or I’m taking items to travel with and display at a classroom or indoor presentation. We also do a lot of demonstrations and exhibits for adults – civic organizations and library events. Exactly what I do every day depends very much on what we’ve got planned for that day – and that’s a big part of why I love this job. I love the variety it offers. Each day is totally different, and I very rarely find myself involved in the same things from one day to the next.
In general, during a presentation, I’ll go into some detail about the local flora and fauna we’re discussing and we’ll usually get a little bit into the ecological background of the biological system that happens to be the subject. I travel throughout the county doing this sort of thing – I also observe and record anything of note I come across at our parks.
The so-to-speak ‘classroom’ presentation part of my job is very rewarding – I often get to witness a lot of those ‘ah-ha’ moments in those situations. But being out there with my boots on a trail and showing kids things out in the field – instead of just telling them about it – that’s just something that never gets old. I never tire of seeing amazement in kids’ faces – or anyone, really – and knowing that I’m the one helping them to discover their own amazement. That’s one of the things that has made me feel good about this job ever since the day I started.
I came here in 1996 to attend Goshen College. While I was a student there I did an internship with the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center and in 2001, after a job opened up, I applied with Elkhart County Parks and I have been here ever since. I have a husband and two kids, and Goshen has been good to us. This is important work for me, and I’m proud to have been doing it this long. I believe it’s very important to have an understanding of nature; an awareness that it’s not just us here.
It’s good to remember that as human beings we’re just one of many, many species. It seems like there’s a sharp disconnect between humans and animals. It’s true that most peoples’ lives, these days, are less involved with nature than ever before in history, but that disconnect is just imagined. The truth is that humans and animals are not really separate from each other at all. I enjoy helping people discover that, and I think if more people learn to be aware and sensitive to nature – and to care about it – that will lead to a better future for people, and for the planet.
Written by Jake Sandock
Original publish date May 2023