Connecting kids with nature is very important to Dawn. Many of us remember that first experience in our childhood of going for a walk in the forest, following a stream, or picnicking in the park. You will see how life stepped in to connect Dawn to nature and thus fanned her deep desire to share and protect it. Her life’s work has been to provide opportunities for others to grow to love our natural environment.
Dawn grew up in Port Credit, Ontario in a suburban-based area. As fate would have it, a guidance counsellor suggested she apply for the Ontario Junior Ranger Program. For over 70 years, the program provided opportunities for ~78,000 youths to connect with nature, frequently working in provincial parks. Duties included trail clearing, building fish spawning beds, constructing and maintaining public latrines on hiking trails, amongst other things. Dawn said, why not? If that does not work out, she would be a lifeguard at Ontario Place. Low and behold her name was literally pulled out of a hat for the Junior Ranger Program. The summer of 1993 in Killbear Provincial Park changed the course of Dawn’s life. With the support of a maintenance person, she returned to the park the following summers to work. She chose her university programs based on the working in the park. First, Parks, Recreation and Leisure Studies followed by Public Administration, Environmental Policy and Community Development. Dawn’s grad work took her to Alberta. Her path was set because of that life-changing chance to learn, work and appreciate the beauty of Killbear. How can others like her be given that opportunity? This is what drives Dawn.
What was your favourite animal or toy?
Since childhood, I always had a family dog. Today, Atticus Finch or Mr. Finch, a black labradoodle, is my trusted advisor. He is at my side in my home office, providing wisdom. Dogs have a unique perspective to ground you.
What are your hobbies?
I have two young children. Maddie, my daughter is ten and Wesley my son, is eight. Right now, my hobbies revolve around my family’s interests. We spend our summers on Georgian Bay, where my husband and I met 20 years ago. As a family, we spend time outside and in the water.
I actually took a snowboarding lesson recently to support Maddie’s interest. I pushed myself to experience something new because of her, albeit with bumps and bruises! Maddie is also fascinated with mythical creatures and believes in dragons. Maddie tells me “Only kids have the ability to see and connect with dragons. Adults lose that.” We will see where this interest takes us!
What TV or films would you be watching, or what books would you be reading, if you weren’t so busy?
If I wasn’t so busy, I would be spending more time with friends and family outside of work. As a family, we are watching the Cosmos series on Netflix. As for books, I am all over the map. For ten years, I have been part of a nine-member book club. In September, each of us comes to the table with two books we must pitch and they are voted on. Over the years, I have read many books across all genres.
What do you MOST want to be remembered for/or achieve in life?
All of us have different roles to play in life. I am on this path of working for nature. I have had different roles and contributed in different ways. I make decisions based on what “feels right” and based on what opportunities come my way. I hope people can look back and know that if you work hard, and make small and large decisions every day, accumulatively you can change the world. Focus on a purpose. For me, it was recognizing the importance of nature, our ability to connect and make a difference for the betterment of our planet. Everyone has the ability and capability to make a difference, especially kids. As the current Chair of The Child and Nature Alliance, I believe that all children and youth should have the opportunity to play and learn freely outside in forests, parks, meadows and mud puddles. Sometimes parents can be too risk adverse and time spent outside is a great way for children to develop important skills and to know they’re trusted and capable.
What inspired you to become a Woman for Nature?
First off, how fun is it to connect with other women? It is exciting to contribute to a movement with other like-minded women who are working to connect Canadians with nature in their own unique way. Women are incredible collaborators and I believe there is a lot we can to together to create meaningful change. This is the only way to succeed no matter what the endeavour. Women in this field have such strength, passion and knowledge. The depth of wisdom across the generations and cultures is impressive. This past year has been incredible for me.
Who were your mentors and what books have inspired you?
Dr. Paul Eagles, a professor in the Parks, Recreation and Leisure program was a mentor in my early days at the University of Waterloo. One of my mentors now is a young woman in her mid-20’s, Chloe Dragon-Smith. Chloe’s approach to environmental protection has named her as an emerging leader in changing parks in Canada. I have learned so much from Chloe.
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv really inspired me and had a big impact. As a child, I remember reading Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson about this magical world created in the forest. It was an emotional read and I have a vivid memory of the important role that nature played in supporting friendship.
Have any specific events or transformative experiences-situations/organizations inspired you the most?
The Ontario Junior Park Ranger experience inspires me to this day, that kids can connect to nature given the chance. Working with a group of Canadians from across the country to develop The Nature Playbook has also been incredible. This book, which supports the global #NatureForAll movement, inspires action. Chloe Dragon-Smith was the Co-Chair for the book with an inclusive working group (gender, cultures and intergenerational). I am thrilled the book is going global! And creating the Women for Nature grant to empower Young Nature leaders to use the learning in the book is exciting too.
What advice would you give to future Women for Nature leaders?
The advice I would give based on my own experiences is to be open to different perspectives from different ages and cultures. Put yourself in those “uncomfortable” places. So much insight comes from those experiences. You get so much out of them. So broaden the tent!
What are some reflections on leadership lessons that you have learned and would like to pass on?
Learn to trust yourself, listen to your instincts and take calculated risks. This happens more and more over time. When I was younger, I would constantly question myself. Now I listen closely to my instincts and interests, which cause me to move in new directions. In doing this, I landed my dream job and I continue to be amazed at where my own connection to nature takes me. I really love what I am doing!
Young Nature Leadership Grant
If you are a youth under 30 who cares deeply about nature and wants to inspire and engage your peers to get outdoors, learn about wildlife and parks and become a voice for nature, please apply for the Women for Nature Young Nature Leaders grant today!