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Member of the Week: Nancy Heltman

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

As human beings continue to have significant impacts on the environment and its resources, education is the perfect tool to inform individuals of how their behaviors and patterns are having negative ramifications upon the environment. Environmental education would help increase an individual’s sensitivity, and concern towards environmental issues, propelling individuals to take action in their communities

The natural environment is a vital part of human survival. Without conservation and protection of the natural world, we would not be able to have clean water, food, and clean air to breathe, which are vital elements to our very existence in this physical world. The land and all of its beauty and glory provides a place for individuals, communities, and families to come together and bask in the glow of nature’s poetic song, and dance providing our spirits with restoration. Conservation enables individuals to pass our planets natural heritage to the next generation. Without it, are ability to pass the torch beyond the present generation greatly diminishes. So, who is creating innovations in the area of conservation, and recreation?

The state of Virginia and at the forefront is NancyHeltman. Virginia is truly a place for lovers; nature lovers that is!

Being an environmentalist Superhero is no romantic job like it is in the movies. In real life, it is a lot of hard work, and contains many sleepless nights.

Nancy Heltman, the operations director for the division of state parks, dept of Conservation & Recreation for the state of Virginia is an environmentalist superhero. Nancy has planted the seeds of knowledge about the environment, and its importance to humanity. One of her greatest achievements has been with young disadvantaged and disabled individuals from diverse backrounds. Nancy has helped these young people to realize their sense of purpose in protecting the environment. Specifically providing the proper educational tools that will nurture their minds for a lifetime. The result has been that she has been able to shatter the walls of diversity, so everyone regardless of back round can make a difference with-in their own communities.

It was a privilege for me to interview Nancy:

1. Why Did you chose your current profession?

My parents both retired from Federal civil service so I was exposed at a young age to government service. When I began my career, I worked in the private sector for a retail firm my father started after he retired. When that was no longer challenging, I applied for a number of state government positions. I applied for the position of Reservation Center Manager since my background in technology, accounting, operations and customer service seemed like a great fit. So I like to think my profession found me. Once I got to the Department of Conservation and Recreation and Virginia State Parks, I knew I had found where I was supposed to be. After a few years I was promoted to Operations Director.

2. What is your favorite part of your job?

The favorite part of my job is where I get to be an ambassador for Virginia State Parks. In the last year that has been developing and implementing our social media program, but it also includes our significant work with volunteers and, my favorite program, our Youth Corps. When I was young I visited several national parks but, as a lifetime resident of Virginia was completely clueless about what our state parks offer. All the rest of what I do, budget, support services for our field staff are all in support of making our parks a great visitor destination and a big part of that is making sure that people know what we have to offer. In spite of our 7 million visitors a year, we still have Virginians that don’t know what an incredible system of parks we have not to mention people from other states.

3. What impact has Virginia State Conservation programs had upon the community?

One of our core missions, and in a way the most important one, is education. All of our parks offer programs for visitors on the natural world and cultural aspects of our parks. The key to conservation is instilling the love of nature in young people. We also offer outreach programs for local schools. We have also started a series of programs for folks who have not spent much time in nature before so they can feel more comfortable – hiking, camping, outdoor cooking and even geocaching. Unfortunately, these are the staff intensive programs that usually suffer when we have budget reductions. Our volunteerism efforts also reach out to the community to help preserve the parks. But volunteerism with youth groups is also part of the education mission. Our Youth Corps program was designed to reach the 14-17 year old youth who start deciding being outdoors isn’t enough fun any more. This program helps the parks get natural resource projects completed, especially trail work, but also exposes youth to the value of parks and natural resources. Beyond the education component, state parks are tourist destinations and as such contribute to the economy of the locality. Our staff members are often prominent members of community organizations as well.

4. Has the Dept of Conservation and Recreation changed the way individuals of the community view nature? What have been the benefits of this changed perception?

In the last fifteen years, in addition to the volunteerism and educational outreach, we have worked to get the community more involved in their parks. Our master planning process brings members of the local community together to make decisions on the use, facilities and overall development of the parks. This makes everyone more invested in the natural resources we protect. Our Natural Heritage division has protected acreage that is habitat for rare and endangered species. Our Planning and Recreation division has assisted local parks and expanded the trails in Virginia in addition to researching and publishing the Virginia Outdoors Plan. We also have embraced the campaign to get young people outside and involved in the natural world. I think this has enabled more people to experience nature and that is the best way to create a love and willingness to protect nature.

5. Have the advances in technology such as social media helped the conservation cause in the United States?

Social media has changed how people get news and information. I think this has given environmental groups a platform that was missing in traditional media. I follow a lot of groups and individuals that share information about environmental causes and green technology on Twitter. Subject matter experts spend the time mining the web for information benefits us all by making the information available.

6. What are your projections for the future in reference to the environment, and conservation?

Globally concerns about climate change and school curriculum on recycling and being “green” are raising a generation more aware of the environment. We have also discovered a renewed interest in camping and park visits that have come with the ailing economy. The more people are exposed to nature, understand the benefits and value, the more they are willing to protect and support it.

7. How has your job changed you, and how you view the natural world?

While I have always loved being outdoors and the beauty of nature, it took working for Virginia State Parks to realize what an important role nature plays in my overall physical well being. As my boss likes to say, Parks are a tonic for the mind, body and spirit. Every time I visit a state park, or am surrounded by nature anywhere, I feel an unburdening of every day problems and stress. It renews me. It probably always did, but now I recognize the effect. The more complex the world gets, the more everyone needs the peace that nature provides.

8. How did your dog get the name Yoda????

My husband and I are great Star Wars fans. David was leaning toward calling Yoda Chewbacca. In a way that would have been a good choice as he has a way of vocalizing that sounds a lot like that character from the movie. But I insisted that naming a puppy Chewie was asking for trouble. Since he had very expressive ears, we settled on Yoda.

I’m Nancy’s assistant! Shhhhh, don’t tell anyone!

9. What are some of your favorite websites/social media websites related to the environment

Some of my favorite outdoor recreation and environmental sites: Children and Nature Network (http://www.childrenandnature.org/); The Prince’s Rainforests Project (http://www.rainforestsos.org/); Nature Rocks (http://www.naturerocks.org/). My favorite blogs are The Grass Stain Guru (http://grassstainguru.com/) and Camping Blogger (http://www.campingblogger.net/). I am also thrilled about a new site that is up and waiting for its official launch that will focus on outdoor recreation in Virginia. Virginia Outdoors (http://www.virginiaoutdoors.com/).

To keep up on environmental and outdoor recreation issues I find Twitter is wonderful. There are great subject matter experts and groups that mine the available information on a variety of environmental and outdoor recreation issues. Some of my favorite tweeps: @TwilightEarth, @ZeroGreenhouse, @NWF, @InvasiveNotes. I also like to follow the other State Park systems on Twitter like @ARstateparks @FLstateparks, @ORstateparks, @OhioStateParks, @CalParks and our own @VirginiaParks (Virginia Association for Parks our non-profit support group)



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Andrew Krzmarzick

“Every time I visit a state park, or am surrounded by nature anywhere, I feel an unburdening of every day problems and stress. It renews me.”

I couldn’t agree more!!

And I now have several more great people to follow on Twitter (thanks, Nancy). Would love to see you and @MauiParkRanger connect. They’re doing some really cool stuff in Hawaii (he’s located at Haleakala – sweet gig, eh?!)…

Last thing: really impressed by the Sustainable Recreation and Tourism group here on GovLoop. One of our hidden gems!