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Certified naturalists program offers nature-centered education

St. Charles resident Suzi Myers said she considers joining the Kane County Certified Naturalists a life-changing experience.

Through the program, she helps out at the Kane County Forest Preserve District’s Maple Sugaring Festival – one of her favorite volunteer opportunities, she said.

“I usually work at the tapping, and to see the kids see the sap come out of the tree, see how watery it is and see it cooked down to the thickness of real maple syrup … that’s always fun to see their little eyes,” she said.

Myers was a member of the first Kane County Certified Naturalists program – a yearlong program that trains naturalist volunteers and offers opportunities to learn more about the area’s natural history and ecology. The program is a partnership between the St. Charles and Geneva park districts and the Kane County Forest Preserve District.

Pam Otto, manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District, is one of the Kane County Certified Naturalists instructors. Otto writes a column that appears weekly in the Kane County Chronicle.

“Most people who sign up for the class are curious about what’s in their backyard,” she said.

Those who join go through six weeks of courses centering on a new topic each week, such as earth sciences, geology, weather and climate and aquatic ecosystems. They are required to take a certain amount of “Learn from the Experts” courses that are offered through each partner agency. The group goes on several field trips each year to areas such as woodlands and creeks, where they catch crayfish.

“Catching crayfish is just as much of a thrill when you’re 65 as when you’re 5,” Otto said.

The program culminates with a certificate, which Otto said carries a lot of weight with nature-centered agencies in Kane County. She said the program gives people a good foundation to volunteer as an instructor at various agencies or to teach children about nature when the park districts host school functions.

Instructor Trish Burns, manager of the Geneva Park District’s Peck Farm Park, said many Kane County Certified Naturalists volunteer at the park’s Butterfly House.

“I just think that probably the overriding thing is that people don’t realize we have all these great things in their backyard,” she said.

Otto said Kane County Certified Naturalists often are surprised to form friendships through the program, and Myers said she noticed that.

“The people you meet become your friends because you have a common interest,” Myers said.

Otto said many members also make important connections about nature in Kane County. Before joining the Kane County Certified Naturalists program in 2007, Kimberley Haag said she didn’t realize how crucial Kane County’s native plants were.

Haag said that fact inspired her to add all sorts of native plants in her own yard in Campton Township.

“Learning about native plants and prairies and how crucial that is to the survival of the species – whether it’s insects, animals or birds – [is] an absolutely crucial thing to help species of all animals survive,” she said of the fact that surprised her most while in the program.

Spreading awareness of the “treasures” in Kane County’s natural areas is one of the program’s many benefits, said instructor Valerie Blaine, nature program manager for the Kane County Forest Preserve District.

“By people learning more about the natural world, it leads to more appreciation. It leads to more caring and a sense of stewardship,” she said. “KCCN definitely raises awareness and appreciation. … You’re never too old to learn.”

Myers agrees.

“If people are sitting on the edge and wondering if they should get into this program, get off the edge and just jump in,” she said. “It’s a phenomenal program. You’re constantly learning. You take a little more ownership of the facilities that we have.”

Know more

There’s still time to sign up for the Kane County Certified Naturalists program, which starts in January. The cost to join is $250 and includes six core classes, three field trips, 15 hours of additional coursework and 15 hours of volunteering or additional coursework. For information or to register, visit or contact Lisa O’Brien at 630-513-4337.

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