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Identifying animals by their tracks with a group of schoolchildren.

Identifying animals by their tracks with a group of schoolchildren.

Here I am standing in the parking lot giving my best “I love being here” smile to 50 or so kids, some looking happy and other look like they would rather be anywhere but here. If you had asked me at the beginning of the summer if I believed I could round up 50 elementary/middle school kids in a creek and keep them safe I would have laughed. After being guided and taught by some of the best park rangers I know, I knew I had this. I kept the kids safe and hopefully educated a few without anyone falling off the rocks, which was definitely an A+ for me.

Working at South Mountains State Park was one of the best jobs I have ever had. I not only gained so much experience but I also gained friendships with lots of amazing people. How often can a person tell you they completed a herbarium, learned bird calls, wrangled up school children, learned about bears and learned about the management of a state park, all in one summer?

When working at the park I never knew what my day might entail. Some days I would be helping with programs while others I would help out with trail clean-up. I learned from the best and brightest park rangers;. Lance Huss and Amanda Lasley were not afraid to give you a task even if you had no clue what you were doing. Everyone at the park was ready to help. I was not given busy work; I was given meaningful projects that would make a difference, and that made my job so much more rewarding. Seeing the faces of the kids light up when I would pull out an animal skin and tell its story gave me an amazing feeling of accomplishment. Hearing the stories of co-workers who had been in the parks system all their life made me go home every night just wanting to see what the next day had in store for me.

flower specimen in herbarium

One of the specimens added to the herbarium collection at South Mountain.

While I was there I had many projects but some of the main ones included helping to present education programs to school groups and the public about the park. This included a “Skins and Skulls” program of different animals that could be found in the park or getting in the water for “What’s In The Water” to show kids how important macroinvertebrates are in telling the quality of the water. If I was not presenting programs I was working on the herbarium with a volunteer who braved the trails with me while I looked for wildflowers found in the park. We would take our samples back, identify them and add them to the park’s herbarium. This project taught me how to drive a Kubota RTV and also how to get unstuck when I am on a hill with nowhere to go. The pride I had when and saw all the work I had put into the herbarium will stick with me for a long time.

The people at South Mountains State Park not only treated me like family and gave me so many amazing experiences, but they also involved me in an outreach environmental education program where I learned how to educate children on the environment. One of my most memorable experiences occurred when I went to an environmental education class at Mount Mitchell. We were able to learn about bears and how people treat them. I learned that in many mountain communities, people see bears in their backyards on a regular basis. Being able to visit Mount Mitchell with one of the park rangers and have that experience was great. I was able to network with many of the people that I met. If you know the importance of networking you will appreciate how much easier they made it for me to meet new people that happily offered to be my references in the future.

My summer at South Mountains State Park did come to and end but I gained so much knowledge and many friendships. Since the park is only 20 minutes from my childhood home, I had the privilege of going back recently. I was offered a part time position, which I had to regretfully decline because I live in Raleigh now, but even getting that offer was very exciting. After working at the park I now understand the important of working on projects alone. I kept myself busy many times because my supervisors where busy or not there that day. This was important because if I sat around doing nothing it would reflect badly on me. I now know that in the future I should always seek the opportunity to network. Many of the people I met told me that you never know how important it is to make a good impression on someone because that impression could land you a future job. If you had asked me if I thought I would enjoy working at a park and helping people I would have probably said no as I am an introvert and not big into talking to strangers but, once I was able to experience the perks of working at a park I would not take it back for anything.