July 5th, 2023 | Brecksville, OH – Many folks can remember parks they visited as children, with smiling rangers that introduced a new world of flora and fauna previously unknown. Whether it was spotting an owl during a night hike or feeling the smooth skin of a snake for the first time, those memories stuck into adulthood.
Faith Nowak has her own memories attending a national park down the road from her childhood home. Through an internship with Appalachian Conservation Corps, she got to fill rangers’ shoes and introduce a new generation of park visitors to the wonder of the outdoors – and will soon be taking on the role full time.
Faith grew up ten minutes from Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeast Ohio and spent much of her childhood hiking trails such as the Ledges Overlook. She knew from a young age she wanted to work outdoors.
“I can remember a program we attended when I was in elementary school where a ranger was teaching using animal pelts, and I left the program telling my parents that I wanted to be her when I grew up,” Faith said.
During her undergrad, Faith volunteered with Cuyahoga Valley in habitat restoration and spent a summer internship working in community engagement to help with park programming. She worked mostly with underserved youth, giving education programs at the park and to local schools, community centers and libraries.
Following graduation, Faith returned to the park as a seasonal ranger in the Field Operations division where she worked in the Boston Mill Visitor Center and continued interpretation programs.
After securing her bachelor’s degree in recreation, park and tourism with a concentration in park management and a minor in disability studies and community inclusion, Faith began her AmeriCorps journey.
Faith joined Stewards Individual Placement Program as an Americorps VISTA in October 2021, where she continued environmental education to young folks and helped manage volunteer programs. Through that internship, Faith piloted a program for the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) that brought hands-on learning to Cleveland students about vole impact in the park. Students planted trees to learn more about vole habits and returned monthly to monitor the trees.
After finishing up with Stewards, Faith joined Appalachian Conservation Corps in November 2022 as a Service Learning Individual Placement. There, she created and carried out programming concentrated on habitat restoration.
Many of her programs focused on volunteerism and making a difference in the park. She helped volunteers plant trees and remove invasive species while teaching them how to make a difference in the natural world. Her programs hosted the general public as well as special interest groups, clubs and school groups. She focused heavily on teaching about restoration efforts in Cuyahoga Valley – such as erosion control, reducing runoff into the Cuyahoga River and providing habitat for native animals – while sharing topics of remediation and park history.
Faith loved to watch students get excited at the park, whether it came from learning something new during a program or simply enjoying the outdoor space.
The best moment was watching things click for kids, when they finally understood they could make a difference by protecting the natural world.
The “aha!” moments were her favorite – when a student encouraged their peers not to step on a spider or kill a bee, when they initially came into the park scared of them. Those instances showed that the ranger’s educational message not only got through to the student but impacted their way of thinking.
“There is something so special about helping someone realize that they enjoy being outdoors, especially when they had not had the opportunity to experience nature prior to visiting a National Park,” Faith said.
One challenge Faith encountered during her internship was making children from extremely urban areas comfortable in nature, as it was often unfamiliar and far from home for them. One way to remedy this was by offering virtual visits beforehand, providing ample information and having staff talk with them before visits.
Faith said it was exciting to see people who showed up nervous to the park finally open up during programs, experience something new and take away a new perspective from the visit.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park sits between two large cities, Cleveland and Akron – and millions of people visit every year. While some visitors travel from far away, Faith also sees first-time visitors who live only 10 minutes away.
“Having accessible, free-entry parks in locations where people actually live ensures that the general public has the opportunity to experience nature, to learn about natural processes in a hands-on and real way, and to find hobbies and experiences that offer a vast variety of opportunities, enjoyment, mental and physical health benefits,” Faith said.
On a professional level, Faith’s internships allowed her to explore the inner workings of the park service and gain experience in ways that directly led to her securing a permanent position.
Working for the National Park Service is difficult to wrap your head around until you’re actually doing it, Faith said. There are many internal intricacies, and she is grateful her internship let her explore the different departments before becoming a permanent staff member. Securing a job in the park service can be tricky, but her mentors and fellow coworkers at the park readied her for the application process and new position.
Faith posing for a picture with her site supervisor Josh Bates.
Faith will be moving into the Business Management Group at Cuyahoga as a permanent Administrative Support Assistant. She will be assisting the superintendent’s office and performing administrative tasks such as onboarding new staff, writing and monitoring special-use permits and managing the mail room.
Working at Cuyahoga brought Faith more than just professional development. She found lifelong friendships with fellow park staff, interns and partner organizations during her time there.
Faith has recognized the importance of protecting green spaces since childhood – her time with Americorps only helped solidify that knowledge. When parks protect green spaces and educate the public on their importance, they are fostering a new generation to care for the Earth, Faith said.
“As we continue to learn more and fight against the effects of climate change and pollution, the best tool we have is public education,” Faith said.
Faith is excited to experience Cuyahoga Valley from a new lens with this position, and carry on the skills she gained in her position with ACC throughout the rest of her time with the National Park Service.