For some people, a home is a house with walls and windows. For others, it is a group of people with whom we can let down our walls. For me, it is Severson Dells Nature Center.
My first introduction to “Severson” (a term that I use to describe the people and place of Severson Dells Nature Center) was a first grade field trip. I climbed over logs, stomped in mud, and splashed in the creek while overloading an Education Volunteer group with questions. I couldn’t get enough of the experience, and couldn’t wait to come back for more.
So I came back for more! I attended several more field trips and asked several more questions. I also started to come to summer camps, and somehow they were even better than field trips. Instead of climbing over logs, I was scuttling through Maquoketa Caves. Instead of stomping in the mud, I was burying my feet into the sand of Illinois State Beach. Instead of splashing in the creek, I was canoeing the rivers of Winnebago County for the first time. I loved camp and the fantastic staff- Don, Kathy, and Richard- who made the magic happen. While at camp, I pursued every experience with boundless enthusiasm and a bewildered sense of awe. It was so good that I began to crave camp again as soon as it was over.
Thankfully, Don Miller came up with a simple yet elegant antidote to my camp cravings: Coyote Clan. We were a group of young adolescents and young-at-heart volunteers who would go exploring somewhere new every month. Somehow, Coyote Clan was even better than camp. We did everything from fire-starting to turtle monitoring to scrambling our way up Kishwaukee Gorge. Together, we were the threads of a tight-knit community that loved to play in and learn about nature. I grew to treasure these outings, and some of my bewildered sense of awe transformed into a certain reverence for creation. I also began to watch the adult volunteers very closely and cling to every word they said. They were very cool, after all.
Coyote Clan was the perfect primer for the next step of my Severson Dells journey: joining the summer staff team. As a high school graduate, I had matured into someone who understood the fundamentals of biology and could see the way it played out on the landscape of Severson. I also was deeply interested in how organizations worked. I learned so much that summer—about camp, ecology, volunteer management, and more. I loved the dynamic rhythm of camp and the eco-themed chatter of the office. I searched for more responsibilities and opportunities to get my feet wet (literally and metaphorically) into everything that made Severson run.
I remember an especially pivotal moment from that summer. It was a warm evening and I could drink in the rich smells of a sun-drenched prairie as we whisked past it. I was shotgun in a car with Don Miller and several Severson regulars touring Winnebago County’s Milkweed populations. Between our stops, we were telling tales and solving all of the world’s problems. Sometime during that car ride, I realized something that had not occurred to me before. Not only was Don paid to do this, but maybe, someday, I could be paid to do it too. It sounded as realistic as making it big in Hollywood at the time, but I couldn’t shake that possibility from my horizon.
That September, I said goodbye to Severson and made my way to Hillsdale College, my new home for the next three years. As someone approaching adulthood, I was trying to be realistic with my plans. I told my classmates that I was studying Environmental Law. When the debates in my politics classes started to feel daunting, I told my classmates that I was going to pursue general Biology. I spent a summer researching species richness of a restored mining site, and while I loved being waist-deep in Ammophila breviligulata and internalizing the Latin names of 181 plant species, I knew something was missing. I started to seriously consider if I needed to commit to my far-fetched dream of working in environmental education. Whenever I was home if even for a few days, I would try to volunteer at Severson.
The next summer, I was back at Severson as a summer intern. While I was elated to be back, I came in with some slight reservations about working with an entirely new staff. Thankfully, my fears were put to rest within the first week of work there. The new dynamic was different- very different- from what I knew Severson to be, it was still Severson. The white noise of the office was still eco-themed chatter and everyone carried the same sense of joy about their jobs. I learned a lot from the new crew and rose to claim even more responsibilities. I loved every new task I tried and developed an even greater interest in how non-profit organizations work. After a summer of wonderful experiences, I finally had the courage to claim my dream: I wanted to work in Environmental Education, and no matter how difficult it would be, and I would work relentlessly toward that goal.
A few months ago, a door opened for me to come back home to Severson. I have to tell you: it feels so good to be back. While I know that I have big hiking boots to fill in the absence of Greg Rajsky, I can’t wait to try. I will give everything that I have to honor Severson and the people and nature that make it who it is. I will get my feet wet, get my hands dirty, and learn at every chance I get. I am so grateful for this opportunity to grow with this organization and see it pioneer a bright new future during my time here.
Most of all, I hope that I get to see you out here very soon! I know that, whatever the occasion may be, it will be a good time.