VIP Spotlight: Mr. Chris Hitchener
Good Morning Watershed Explorers,
Thanks to an idea from my wonderful manager Ms. Jamie Samons, the Watershed Explorer blog will now showcase a VIP spotlight each week. Similar to the critter spotlight, these blogs will bring you up close and personal, the only difference is that these spotlights will be about a person rather than a critter. I will interview some changemakers in the environmental world who are stepping up to make the Earth a better place for everyone, especially students like yourselves!
For this first spotlight, I chose a good friend who has inspired my work as an environmental educator and whose positivity is contagious. He is by far one of the best educators and people I know, please have fun learning more about Mr. Chris Hitchener!
What is your title and can you provide a brief job description?
Education Coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Oak Knoll Wildlife Sanctuary.
Manage educational outreach efforts; including programming such as school-based, public/family, scout, special events, and camps throughout the Southeast region of Massachusetts (in particular in Attleboro) and Northern Rhode Island. The education Coordinator at Oak Knoll also helps manage a small education animal collection, helps maintain the sanctuary and the Nature Center, and establishes relationships with community partners such as local land trusts, libraries, and art museums.
How many years have you worked at Oak Knoll?
5 ½ years. What is your educational background? What degree/s, classes, or continuing education help you to be successful in your work?
I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology from the University of RI. I wanted a strong background in science, but when I was in college I was not sure if I wanted to go the education route or become a biologist, so I took the extra 30 credits to have options upon graduation. I decided after graduation that I loved combing the science with teaching so I focused my energy on Teacher Naturalist Education. Over the years I have taken continuous course work through the RI Department of Education on Early Childhood Education, participated in numerous statewide conferences (such as MEES and RIEEA), national conferences (such as NAAEE and AZA), and specialty training courses/committees (such as Life is Good Playmaker program, CLIZEN, American Camp Association).
In addition, I really enjoy understanding the properties management side of the work that I do and the safety/risk management. I enjoy taking classes such as Wilderness First Responder, chainsaw safety, CREW work, First Aid CPR, and safety committees.
What is the best part of your job?
Finding ways to help people connect to nature in a way that is meaningful to them. I really enjoy it when people have that “aha moment” in nature. When they discover something new or special that helps them see we are part of a larger world and ecosystem that is beautiful, dangerous, inspiring, empowering, and humbling all at the same time. The individual connection can be very emotional for some folks, and its an honor to be a small part of that realization. Group connections or outdoor team building can also be VERY rewarding and fun. Many of the adventures I have had with groups of people have completely changed my life and have helped me make connections with people from all over the world, people who I will never forget! What is one aspect of your job that would surprise other people?
The lengths Environmental Educators are willing to go to connect people and communities to what is happening around them in the natural world. For example, in 2003 I was fortunate enough to go to Papua New Guinea as part of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Project when it was hosted out of Roger Williams Park Zoo. My job was to learn about the country’s conservation efforts protecting land and tree kangaroo habitat and create education opportunities/curriculum to bring awareness to the amazing work being done in local New Guinea communities and with international scientists. When I told family and friends that I was going to the rainforest for a month, they said “enjoy your paid vacation!”, but in reality, it was the farthest thing from a vacation. Yes, it was beautiful, but the work that we put in was non-stop. We worked 7 days a weeknight and day for a year preparing for the trip, in addition to our normal responsibilities at work, and then once you are there you are working non-stop day and night to accomplish the project's goals. We had to go through physical training since we hiked everywhere carrying our own equipment to local villages, get screened medically and go through rounds of vaccinations, cultural sensitivity training to understand the language and cultural customs of the locations we were working in, navigate unexpected challenges like wildlife encounters/storms/unexpected illnesses. Once you return from a trip like that you want to sleep for a month straight, but everyone else around you thinks you were simply “on vacation”, and I was only there for a month. Many of my colleagues do that for years at a time! When you were a kid, did you like school?
Of course!! Absolutely!.. but there were also tough times at school as I grew and matured. I was a kid and some days were tough. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t belong or I felt like I didn’t want to be there, but there were more days where I felt part of a larger family/community and I loved being there. What was your favorite subject?
It depended on the teacher, to be honest. Overall I enjoyed the subject of science, but I loved classes that had teachers who engaged their students to work collaboratively in teams. Teachers who taught us more than just the content, but how to think independently and how to take the content and use our talent to do something positive with that information.
Do you have any special talents?
Teaching in informal settings. I know that is a weird talent, but I really feel comfortable and confident working with groups of people in informal educational settings, especially in nature. Also, I can juggle. 😊
Do you have a favorite quote or comment by an Oak Knoll visitor, camper, or co-worker that has inspired you?
One of my old supervisors once told me that my job was to “help people look at the overlooked”. That comment has stuck with me for years! We are so busy in our own heads and in our own worlds that we tend to forget we share it with millions of other living things who we depend on to survive. Every time I take folks on a hike or adventure I have that comment repeating in the back of my head, “what can I discover today, that I have never taken the time to notice and learn about”.
Is there, or was there a person in your life who inspired your career journey? What was it about that person that inspired or inspires you?
There are so many people who have inspired me along my career path, and who continue to inspire me in new ways. It's hard to think of just one. I would say the first person who really got me thinking of Environmental Education as a career, was a woman whose name I never learned. When I was a kid I was visiting my family in Vermont. My uncle took me for a hike in the mountains, and after a grueling hike, we came to a clearing and there was this woman sitting on a tree stump with a Great Horned Owl on her glove. It blew my mind. She was a wildlife rehabilitator and had hiked the same trail, while carrying a very large owl, to release it back into the wild. She wasn’t even sweating! She had the biggest smile on her face and she seemed to be so happy and content as she released this amazing bird back into the wild. I realized at that moment that it’s the things that we do, not the money that we make, that can lead to true happiness.
Words to live by: Do you have a favorite quote, or saying that you could share that would help to inspire today's students?
“These young people are saying we all have a right to know what is in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, and the food we eat. It is our responsibility to leave this planet cleaner and greener. That must be our legacy." – John Lewis
Finding ways to help people connect to nature in a way that is meaningful to them. I really enjoy it when people have that “aha moment” in nature. When they discover something new or special that helps them see we are part of a larger world and ecosystem that is beautiful, dangerous, inspiring, empowering, and humbling all at the same time. The individual connection can be very emotional for some folks, and its an honor to be a small part of that realization. Group connections or outdoor team building can also be VERY rewarding and fun. Many of the adventures I have had with groups of people have completely changed my life and have helped me make connections with people from all over the world, people who I will never forget! I can't thank Chris enough for being the first VIP spotlight interview. I hope that you all had a lot of fun getting to know him. Even though the nature center at Oak Knoll is closed, the trails at the sanctuary are open for a hike. Please visit https://www.massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/oak-knoll to learn more about Oak Knoll and possibly take a trip to check it out!
Much love Watershed Explorers,