A Wild Trail to Social Service

My Experience as an Intern at Chicago Wilderness

by Jessi LaChance, 2012 Chicago Wilderness Leave No Child Inside Summer Intern

Jessi and Emilian pose at the Dean Nature Sanctuary Prairie Exploration and Open House event.When I decided to stay in Chicago for the summer instead of returning home to southern Missouri, I knew that I wanted to spend my time working for an organization that allowed me to engage with Chicago and its residents and to gain professional experience in social service, my chosen education and career path. I wanted something hands on that dealt with education, health, poverty, and children, and I wanted a job that would teach me something about Chicago outside of the University of Chicago library and the movie theater downtown. So, when I came across the Chicago Wilderness Leave No Child Inside internship opportunity, I was immediately drawn to the organization’s desire to connect, not only with the land, but with the people, the initiative’s concern with the health and education of young people, and its recognition that the conservation movement needs to diversify its audience and work to reach those families with fewer resources and opportunities.

Although I admittedly know little about environmental science, I did grow up in an area with big backyards, where school playgrounds are filled with trees and fields, and where weekends are spent on the lake. After my time tutoring at a Chicago charter school and engaging in some of the issues faced by urban school districts, I was intrigued by the idea that being outside and actively interacting with a more natural and green environment could help with child development. Further, I was excited to work with an entirely new population of nonprofits in the Chicago area; I have worked with nonprofits focused primarily on housing, health, and education through my school’s Community Service Center, but I lacked knowledge of nonprofits in the conservation world.

Although the LNCI job description listed tasks such as assisting with grant proposals, coordinating events, and writing for the newsletter, I was unsure as to what to expect coming into the position. My conversations with those who have had an intern title made me believe that I could be doing anything from getting coffee and making copies all day to staying at the office until midnight only to return again at 6 am hoping to impress the impossible-to-impress supervisor. However, I was immediately welcomed into the Chicago Wilderness office. I was given an incredible amount of information on member organizations and LNCI programs to work with and invaluable guidance from my supervisor, Emilian. Emilian also enthusiastically supported my desire to do hands-on, direct service work, and thus I have been given the freedom to, not only write stories on programs, but to attend them and participate in them directly. Through these hands-on experiences and many meetings with partner organizations, I have gained a great deal of information on surrounding communities and their residents. Although I was surprised that the communities I have learned the most about are not necessarily Chicago neighborhoods, I have had the opportunity to travel to and attend meetings about community programs in North Chicago, Waukegan, Barrington, West Chicago, and even Wisconsin and Indiana.

Along with the skills I have learned from reporting on large events, helping to write charters and job proposals, and being in the midst of the chaos during grant proposal deadlines, I have learned a set of skills that is even more important in social service work, and perhaps more difficult to learn, through the many unconventional opportunities I have been offered while working at Chicago Wilderness. While judging a 4-H competition at a county fair, I learned the value of constructive criticism and the importance of sharing ideas. While on a scavenger hunt at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, I learned the benefit of being observant and attentive. And while I fished for tiny water bugs with just a net and a bucket, I learned the importance of patience and gentleness when dealing with other living beings.

This internship has thus been an incredible opportunity to expand my communication skills, engage in diverse communities, and participate in direct service. Further, I have been exposed to an entirely new way of using my social service-based education and a new angle for any future research on education, child development, or welfare assistance programs. It has been an experience that has taught me a lot about the nonprofit community, and one which I would encourage both environmentally and non-environmentally focused students to consider.

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