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As a parks naturalist for St. Johns County (Florida) Parks and Recreation, people tell me I have the best job in the world, and I am inclined to agree.
Luckily for me, my job takes place in Northeast Florida, where the weather is ideal for year-round recreation, and we have access to incredible natural resources. Wherever you go, St. Johns County offers an abundance of nature’s beauty to explore.
Since starting my career with the park and recreation agency six years ago, we have seen tremendous growth of residents and visitors. For the past two years, we have been facing challenges brought on by a worldwide pandemic. However, these challenges have offered great opportunities for us to be innovative with programming. I started my career establishing kayak trips and beach walks and have built a programming portfolio full of diverse outdoor recreational opportunities, such as nature photography, fishing, astronomy and naturalist classes.
Not only has the diversity of programs expanded, but also my idea of an effective program has evolved. When I began interpretive programming, I found a program successful if people walked away knowing more than when the program started. Now, I find my experience as a naturalist to be more fulfilling when participants walk away feeling connected to the experience they just had. I have heard in the past that “it’s not what you tell people, it’s how you make them feel.” I have found that providing a safe space for people to connect to the natural world, as well as each other, can be far more powerful than learning about the flora and fauna that surround them.
Our department is proud to have recently expanded our reach with a partnership with Department of Veterans Affairs for military-exclusive outdoor recreation opportunities. These programs are educational, motivating, and, most importantly, provide veterans from all walks of life an opportunity to bond with each other and nature.
Participants often say that our programs are peaceful, calm and therapeutic. Truthfully, to me, these words have become more important than hearing a program was educational. Why are the spaces and pauses in programs so important? Because while people may forget exactly how many teeth an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin has (it’s 72 to 104, by the way), they won’t forget how they felt when they were watching the dolphins swim by while enjoying the sunset in beautiful St. Johns County.
Kelly Ussia, Parks Naturalist for St. Johns County Parks and Recreation.