Source: The Kentucky Standard
By Kacie Goode
October 11, 2020
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest has a mission to connect people with nature. Interpretive Programs Manager Wren Smith and the volunteers she trains are helping to fulfill that mission.
A native of Shelby County, Smith and her family visited Bernheim several times a year. From an early age, she loved nature and anything that “crawled or hopped,” she said.
“It was at Bernheim I saw adults running around excited about trees and birds and snakes and turtles and, you know, all kinds of stuff I loved as a kid, and I found out they got paid for that,” she recalled of first interacting with those employed with the arboretum.
She knew that’s what she wanted to do — she wanted to become a naturalist. The idea inspired her so much that, as a teen, she mentioned it to her high school guidance counselor when discussing career options.
“Back in those days, he wasn’t very encouraging. In fact, he said there wouldn’t be any jobs in the outdoors for women. So he encouraged me to go into elementary education.”
While it wasn’t the advice she wanted to hear, that pursuit of education would eventually lead her back to the path she was meant to take.
Smith recalled taking a general biology course her sophomore year at Eastern Kentucky University during which the professor showed a film of an elk migration off the Olympia Peninsula. Watching the documentary reignited the spark behind Smith’s passion to work in nature, and she approached her professor about her desires. He encouraged her to switch majors, and so she began studying wildlife management and then entered a new field of study called environmental resources. Eventually, she graduated from EKU with a degree in environmental education.
Smith was hired right out of college working with the YMCA Camp Piomingo at Otter Creek Park, where she took kids on hikes and taught them about nature. It was at the camp she met with naturalists working at the park’s nature center who assisted her with resources for her lessons. Eventually, Smith was hired by the park as a naturalist.
In 2000, Smith made the shift to Bernheim and she has served with the forest ever since.
Smith spent the first two years finding her niche, which led her to develop Bernheim’s Volunteer Naturalists Program. At the time, Bernheim was introducing a new interpretive plan to incorporate mobile education labs for guests, but the forest didn’t have the resources to hire a large enough staff to accommodate the plan.
“Strategically, it seemed like we needed a corps of highly-trained naturalists,” she said, and so she began working with the idea of training volunteers on a variety of topics to fill that need.
The response was immediate, with about 30 people attending the inaugural orientation.
“Right off the bat, I knew I had something,” Smith said.
Volunteers start the program in the winter and complete a curriculum during which they take a variety of classes and apply what they learn during educational programs, discovery stations, guided hikes and events.
In addition to the lessons held as part of the program, the volunteers bring a variety of skills to the table.
“Some of them are experts in astronomy,” Smith said. Others may have a passion for birds and wildlife or horticulture. Like Smith, many of those who volunteer with Bernheim reside in Nelson County.
Tony Cecil, who lives in the Samuels area, has been with the program since it started and has assisted with the forest’s education department and in the greenhouse, and has guided visitors along numerous trails. Joe Rogers has also been with the program for several years and leads informative nature hikes as well as some discovery stations during Bernheim events. Jim and Karen Scout stepped up this spring to monitor the forest’s Purple Martin colonies during closure and help virtually teach community members about the species. Corinne Mastey has been known to share her love and knowledge of pollinators, including butterflies, with visitors, as well as help guests explore forest areas such as the hollies during lunch and learn programs.
These volunteers and many others, along with Bernheim’s staff, Smith said, are tasked with not only maintaining the forest but also showcasing what it offers to communities.
Smith also gains from providing the program.
“Knowledge becomes yours when you give it away,” she said. “If I want to keep learning and growing as a naturalist, I need to train naturalists,” and that cycle continues as her volunteers work with guests.
Over the years, Smith said, it has been wonderful to watch the program develop and grow. Today, she estimates there are about 50 active volunteer naturalists, though the current COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the program’s ability to bring large groups together. In recent months, some of the volunteers have led virtual lessons, which can be viewed at bernheim.org, and others have posted videos on what nature means to them.
Many of the volunteers have been with the program for several years, though some cycle in and out, so recruiting new volunteers is always important. Smith usually holds an orientation in January for those interested in becoming volunteer naturalists.
When she looks for volunteers, she said she looks for those who are kind and able to mentor one another, because that mentorship and collaboration play a major role in the program.
Aside from the volunteer program, which is about 75% of her role at Bernheim, Smith leads programs for guests, such as lessons on foraging and wildflowers.
Smith’s work has earned her much recognition, including being named Kentucky’s Naturalist of the Year in 2010 and the recipient of the National Association for Interpretation’s Shining Star Award in 2018.
Long before coming on board with the research forest as an employee, Bernheim set the stage for Smith’s career. In helping to develop skills and interests among volunteers and, by association, those who visit Bernheim, Smith hopes to do the same. Perhaps another child on a weekend visit with family will make that initial connection with nature that Bernheim sets out to provide.