The Texas State Parks Ambassador Program connects conservation-minded young adults with recreation and volunteer opportunities to foster a new generation of state park stewards. All you need is leadership or volunteer experience and a love for our state parks. Learn more on the podcast.
Under the Texas Sky – S3E2: Park Ambassadors
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Texas offers some of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse State Parks in the nation. And they are dearly loved by many Texans. But as our state’s population continues to grow and budgets become tighter, maintaining and caring for our State Parks continues to be huge challenge. But there’s a group of folks from the next generation who are stepping up and volunteering to help that cause, to educate others about conservation and the outdoors. They are Texas State Park Ambassadors.
[LOUISA] As the person leading the program, always be the person looking into the sun. So that saves your audience from having to do that and it’s just more pleasant for them.
That’s Louisa [Lew-e-sah] Torrance [Tore-ance], Ambassador Program Coordinator for Texas State Parks. She’s at Lake Mineral Wells State Park & Trailway educating the next generation of State Park stewards as part of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Ambassador Leadership Training program.
On the podcast, we’ll learn about Louisa’s work to train young volunteers who are passionate about the environment and helping State Parks, while learning valuable skills for a possible career in conservation.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
State Parks are the perfect place to spend time in nature. Whether camping, bird watching, fishing, swimming, going on a hike or bike riding. With ever-growing urban environments however, today’s youth are not always aware of the outdoor opportunities State Parks provide. But there is an effort change that awareness.
[LOUISA] We’ve got our wonderful group of bird beaked buffet audience members, which is y’all, and, we’re going to do some bird dances! So, the first thing we need to do is look around and see if we can see any birds. So, take a little while to look in the trees, look above us, are there any birds on the lake? Oh, oh I think we see a bird in that tree, oh yes there’s a little itty-bitty baby bird, its tiny!
Louisa Torrance is the Ambassador Program Coordinator for Texas State Parks. She is conducting the Ambassador Leadership Training for new Ambassadors from the Panhandle and North Texas regions of the state. She trains Ambassadors from other regions of the state at different times throughout the year. The program participants must commit to volunteer 40 hours over 6 months at their assigned partner park and in their community, that includes hands-on service, community outreach, and social media projects. Louisa says the program is open to conservation-minded young adults ages 18 to 30 and its intent is to grow a new generation of State Park stewards.
[LOUISA] The average park visitor is about 44 years old, and so we want to make sure the parks stay relevant, and so by encouraging this age group of 18 to 22, 22 to 30-year old’s who were getting into the parks were also making sure that that next generation is invested and enjoys going outdoors so that our parks stay relevant.
Louisa does a lot of recruiting at colleges and universities, and says while many students like the idea of working in conservation, they are simply not aware of opportunities inside of agencies like Texas Parks and Wildlife.
[LOUISA] A lot of the students that I interact with, at career fairs, or at colleges, don’t realize the huge range of positions that are available with Texas Parks and Wildlife, the fact that we have such a huge agency, and a lot of people who are needed to support the parks not just as Rangers or as law enforcement, kind of comes as a surprise to them. We have students who come up and say: I’m an engineer. How on earth am I going to contribute to Parks and Wildlife? And I say: well, we have civil engineers, we have people who are out here helping these state parks run, not just for nature, but also for all of the tourism that comes into the parks. So, that’s one aspect of it, is not recognizing that there are a lot of different awesome opportunities to help support state parks, and then secondly, you will have students who say: wow, I grew up camping, I used to do this a lot as a kid, I’ve always really loved it, but I’m not sure how I can get into this field, what can I do with that passion and that love? And so, it’s really exciting to share all these great opportunities and also share the fact that they can volunteer and try things out. So, volunteering I think is one of the best pathways into this agency because you get a chance to meet staff, network, give back, and also find out if what you are doing is also what you truly want to turn into a career.
Helping young people discover their love for the outdoors is very gratifying for Louisa. So how did she become so passionate about Park Ambassadorship?
[LOUISA] I was on a very different path, I went back to school for fisheries and I was at ANAM Corpus Christi and heard about the ambassador program during my first year as a graduate student there, and I applied and was partnered with Mustang Island State Park, so I was their ambassador, and during that experience, I just fell in love with interpretation, outreach, being in the parks, I had a really wonderful experience with my mentor, and I got to thinking: maybe instead of coastal fisheries, I could potentially work for state parks. And, it was just great timing that when I graduated, this position came open, and so I applied, and now I get to be the ambassador program coordinator and pay forward the same experiences that I experienced at Mustang Island.
[CHRISTINE] And ya’ll are all going to pick a leaf out of the bag and you’re going to look at your leaf…
Park Ambassador Christine [Chris-teen] Stein [St-eye-n] is leading the group on a leaf finding mission. It’s part of the “Growing Up Wild” early childhood curriculum which Park Ambassadors must learn to teach. But this is not Christine’s first rodeo when comes to working with children.
[CHRISTINE] Well I actually worked with the boys and girls club before this, the last spring and summer, and I work with kids age 6 to 19 so I’m very comfortable with children and I really enjoy working with kids, so when it’s a very kid-centered environment, I’m much more comfortable than with adults, adults scare me just a little bit (laughs) because I myself look like a kid. Kids can relate to me, they don’t feel threatened to find me, so they open up more to me so I feel like I’m more in my natural element when working with kids.
[CHRISTINE & ISAAC] Singing: “This is the way we capture insects, capture insects, capture insects. This is the way we capture insects just like a swallow.”
Helping Christine with one of the songs in the Growing Up Wild curriculum is Isaac [Eyes-ick] Turpin [Ter-pin]. He and Christine are both students at Baylor University in Waco, where he learned about the Park Ambassador program at a university sponsored career fair.
[ISAAC] Well, it was kind of the same thing that happened with Christine, we were at the Baylor career fair, looking around, and we definitely wanted to check out the non-profit section, because we both care about doing good things for the world, and even though non-profits are non-profits, you can still get jobs with them, it’s just a little harder, so we thought we’d check it out, and the first thing that immediately jumped out at us when we walked in was Texas Parks and Wildlife, because that’s, it’s such a good department. At least from an outside perspective, it knows what it wants to accomplish, and it’s trying to do that, and what it’s trying to accomplish is good. There aren’t really drawbacks to it.
That’s high praise from Isaac. Young adults who want to do good things for the world make great candidates for the Park Ambassador program. Yet, there is another audience Louisa is focused on recruiting as well, those who have been historically and culturally under-represented in outdoor conservation roles.
[LOUISA] We have a widely diverse set of people who live in Texas, and we really want to reflect that diversity, in our state park visitation, and also in the people who work for Texas Parks and Wildlife. So, through the ambassador program, we’re connecting young, diverse ambassadors who are young volunteers with the state parks so that they feel a sense of community, so that they have an investment in the parks, so that they can see: wow, there are people like me that work at these parks, I could potentially work for these parks. So, it’s a great recruitment pathway, but it’s also a great way to get this new generation of state park stewards involved with the parks and feeling like these parks are for them.
[EMILY] I always felt like an outsider, but I love the outdoors, because I was just like a woman of color, and you don’t really see a lot of us out there, but I've met other ladies that have been passed alumni come up and message me via social media, and were like: hey! We can help you out. If you have any questions, we’d be happy to. So, just the reaching out aspect of it, I’m really, really in love with that. It’s really great.
Emily [EM-ih-lee] Cortez [Core-tehz] is from Dallas, and while she didn’t have the same experiences as some of her peers in high school, she now realizes her family was able to afford her a much richer experience in the outdoors.
[EMILY] You know, growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, my family and I, so, when a lot of kids were going to Disney World, or New York, my parents really, we could only afford to go to state parks. So, reluctantly I kind of got into it, and my dad’s an avid bird watcher, and my mother loves flowers, her name’s actually Rosemary, so you know they kind of introduced me to the outdoors because that’s really all we really could afford, but you know looking back on it, it really did define who I am today, and my respect and love for nature, so it’s been a long, very long journey into the outdoors.
Emily’s Park Ambassadorship is at Cedar Hill State Park in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. She believes seeking diversity is the right focus for State Park Ambassador Program.
[EMILY] The importance of it, is, to bring just a new generation of stewards to this park and, what it lacked a lot was diversity, and women, I love to see so many women that want to be involved in that, I felt like for a long time it was such a man's world where it’s like: how do I get in there, I want to be in there, I want to be in that! You know, this really encourages anybody from any background to kind of come in.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
The State Park Ambassador Program is a way for young adults to volunteer their time in working directly with the needs of State Parks, all while gaining valuable experience for a possible career in conservation.
Kayaking is just one part of the Leadership Training new Park Ambassadors experience on a five-day overnight camping trip at Lake Mineral Wells State Park & Trailway. The Ambassadors are being led by Program Coordinator Louisa Torrance who says these young adults are the next generation of State Park stewards. But how is Louisa able to attract this younger generation into the outdoors? Well, she is using a communication platform many of them are already familiar with.
[LOUISA] Social media is a great way to reach wide audiences, so, on social media you can post videos, you post pictures, of special places in the park, that might peak someone’s interest who may have never known that existed at a park, so it’s a great way to reach wider audiences, it’s also a great way to share messaging, so one of the sessions that we have here is a way to write an interpretive message so that you are not just showing a great waterfall or a beautiful hike, you are also including a conservation message, or getting the audience to ask questions and want to learn more about it.
Rocio [Row-see-o] Garcia [Gar-see-ah] learned about the Park Ambassador Program through Instagram.
[ROCIO] I had been following the Texas State Parks, um, Instagram for a while, and just everything that they did seemed appealing and just the programs that they had, even for children. When I was younger, I would get a backpack and a magnifying glass, a little notepad and pretend I was some kind of explorer, so when I noticed that they finally had a program and that it was offered to an area that I was in, I was stoked. I, um, told my husband about it, I applied not even thinking that I'd even get, you know, accepted, just to know, you know, that I did do this. So, I applied, I was emailed about an interview; I interviewed, and then I was accepted into the program, and it's been great. And then after I got accepted into the program, I, um, found out that I was pregnant with my firstborn, so I'm seven weeks (going into eight), and I'm still doing this - and the program knows, and they were very accepting and excited to have a mother to be.
Rocio is all-in when it comes to the outdoors. Impressed by her earliest camping experiences with her father, she’s already taken bold steps to continue that tradition with her own future family.
[ROCIO] I actually went camping for the first time when I was in 7th grade, we went to lake Whitney State Park with my family and my father's originally from Mexico, so outdoors was something that I was pretty used to. Camping's a little bit different, but I absolutely fell in love with it and it was nothing glamorous, I stayed in a tent and I don't even know if I had a sleeping bag, but I was just so happy to be outdoors and it triggered something in me that I knew I wanted someday to have my own camper and I worked very hard and two years ago, actually, I purchased my own used camper, a 1978 Trillium camper, and my fiancée at the time and I worked on it, and by the time we got married, we honeymooned for two weeks all around Texas state parks, and we went to five different ones.
So, what did the State Park honeymoon package include for Rocio?
[ROCIO] We went to, we started off at McKinney Falls in Austin, and then we went to Lake Corpus Christi... Afterwards we went to Lost Maples, which is beautiful - one of my favorites. We also went to Palmetto, and stayed there a week, and we also went to Cleburne State Park, so we had a pretty fun 2-week honeymoon and it rained almost every day while we were out - some days harder than others - but, uh, we still enjoyed it so much, I, I think about it now and I think of all the things we could have done, or places we could have traveled, and nothing would have beat our 2-week honeymoon in our camper.
Now that Rocio is a mother-to-be, does she think she can complete all of her required volunteer service hours?
[ROCIO] I do. And especially since we have the Growing Up Wild, um, the certification today, there's so much potential to grow. And then not only that, but you can have people, you know, come onboard. One of my state parks’ needs is to set up a volleyball court, and my husband and his best friend have already signed up to do it this spring. But knowing that I can do everything else that everyone else is doing and haven't, you know, stopped yet or haven't, well, "I can't do this because I'm pregnant", it's let me know mentally how strong I am and... someday when I have my child and when it's older, it'll see all the things that I did and what women can do and what pregnant women can do.
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[SUMMER] “This is kind of the things that I would have on all my tables, I have a flyer so you can see what the event is…”
Assisting Louisa with the Leadership Training is Ambassador alum Summer Miller. She was helped through her Ambassadorship by alumni and felt it was only right for her to give back as well.
[SUMMER] I am an environmental studies major and my emphasis is on resource management, so I was pretty interested in the aspect of community outreach, the service project, all that seemed kind of up my wheelhouse, I'm just kind of hearing testimonies from all the past trainers about the experiences they’ve had, it was just kind of really empowering to me, and it was definitely encouraged, and it inspired my journey through my ambassadorship.
Summer is a volunteer dynamo. In addition to her State Park Ambassadorship, she also volunteers as an Interpreter at the Waco Mammoth National Monument. She’s also a Junior Ranger at multiple National Parks. All while working on her degree at Baylor University.
[SUMMER] My family we have an RV, and so in the summers we would just kind of travel the country, so I’m really fortunate that I kind of got to grow up outside, it’s very fun I got to visit a lot of national parks, I'm a junior ranger at 48 national parks right now, so, I definitely grew up in the outdoors, but I really love working with communities that didn't necessarily like have that same opportunity and just kind of being able to be sort of the first experience they might be having with camping and outdoor recreation, just kind of being able to like, bring them into that.
[SUMMER] The purpose of this program, for an ambassador's standpoint, is: 1, a lot of experience, but then 2, just kind of giving back to the community that, um, has given so much to us... But as part of the parks, um, they kind of gain a lot of free labor from this. Um, like, for my park, um, I did their first ever Earth Day festival, and that's something that they might be continuing annually. I kind of brought in a lot more groups that hadn't originally been going to the park, um, because I went out and spoke to a lot of different community groups. New people get to come, they get a lot of publicity from, like, the events that we do, um, and then also, like, a lot of the service projects do a lot of beneficial work.
Sounds like a win/win for both State Parks and Park Ambassadors. Summer sees the value as a collection of life skills that she could apply to any career.
[SUMMER] Those experiences, whether or not I end up applying it to an environmental field - like, I think those were very impactful; like, being able to, like, plan events and being able to work with people and work with a point of contact, and like, kind of streamline communication - like, those were all, like, really important experiences for me as a young adult, and I think that those will, like, really help me, I guess, in applying for a job, and just in life, so I'm, like, really thankful for the program.
State Park Ambassadors are providing a vital link to the outdoors for Texans from all walks of like who otherwise may never have known about the beauty our natural world has to offer. And the success of the Ambassador program is something that gives Louisa Torrance hope for the future.
[LOUISA] Part of my nature story is, a little bit of eco-anxiety, this feeling of what’s going to happen to our planet in the future, what is the path of conservation going to look like in the future, and being around all of these young people who really care deeply about conservation and want to give back to state parks in our public lands really fills me with a sense of hope, and I loved being able to help guide them on that path and act more as a facilitator so that their talents and their abilities and their passion can go fully into the parks and into the public lands so that they, and future generations can enjoy that as well.
We’re hopeful too, Louisa. Thanks for all you do to encourage the next generation of Park Ambassadors.
To learn more about becoming a State Park Ambassador, just the Texas Parks and Wildlife website at www.texasstateparks.org/ambassadors.
And remember, before heading to any state park, historic site or natural area, call ahead.
[MUS—TO ORBIT YOUR SOUL]
And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available at UndertheTexasSky.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
We record the podcast at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.
Thanks to Tom Harvey for collecting the interviews and Randall Maxwell who produced the podcast. Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing provide distribution and web help. Whitney Bishop does our social media. I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
[LOUISA] Through the ambassador program, we’re connecting young, diverse olunteers with the state parks so that they feel a sense of community, so that they have an investment in the parks...
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.