Iris is often the first person people meet when they stop in at the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests office in central Arizona. As a customer service representative, Iris answers phones and greets visitors. But that’s only half her job. She also steps outside the office to present educational programs to campers and has almost single-handedly lead the effort to establish a quickly growing conservation education program. Iris joined the Forest Service in 2005, working at the Gila National Forest in New Mexico until she moved to the Apache-Sitgreaves in 2007.
People have described you as a self-starter who has found a way to get things done. Why would they say that about you and what are they talking about?
Well, when I first came to the Apache-Sitgreaves, my boss told me part of my job was conservation education. I had no idea what he was talking about. That had never been a part of my job before, but he said we would just have to make it work.
I started by taking the conservation education (meeting) calls that Region 3 has. Once I got into that, I found out that I really cared about education and the importance of helping our kids understand their natural environment. It has really become a passion for me. I want to understand it. I want to grow it more. I want others to know how important this program is to our forest and our communities.
We started Kids in the Woods in 2007. At the time, we had four programs and 90 participants. Last year, we had 101 programs with 5,000 participants. I’m chairman of the Kids in the Woods leadership group, and that includes a number of different agencies – federal, state and local – and we also have many individual volunteers that are part of our group. That is really what has made our program grow. The support of all the people who have volunteered to make it work.
We’re very proud of that growth. We hope to keep expanding and keep it growing over the years. What is really amazing is we didn’t have any funding for the first two years. We just decided what we were going to do and did it. We felt it was that important.
What’s the one thing about you that people don’t know?
That I used to be very, very shy. I guess getting this job and being at the front desk has made me be more outgoing and more of a people person. And that’s a good thing. I’m really enjoying it now.
Probably the most surprising to me is being able to do the programs. I go to the campground and do programs there. You can have three people or 60 people show up. Three to five years ago, if someone had said I would do that, I would have said they were crazy.
But I know this is important and someone has to do it. Someone has to explain why what we do is so important, especially to youth. They live in a screen world. It’s a constant screen world that sits in front of them with computers and cell phones and all those electronics. It’s not the real world. Nature deficit disorder has grown way too much.
How would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered by making a difference in the local communities, hopefully by connecting kids to their natural environment and also connecting the communities to the Forest Service. We don’t always have a good connection with our communities, and I’m hoping through these programs for kids people in the local communities will see what the Forest Service is really about.
You said that you overcame shyness. How would you describe yourself now?
I am an adventurer. By gaining the desire to do conservation education, to educate people about what needs to be done and why, that kind of pushed me over the edge of not being shy anymore. I did start to be more adventurous and outgoing. I’m a lot more, I guess, friendly and not as introverted as I used to be. Working on the front desk helped that, too.
We all need to be adventurous and go forward and try to do new things and, hopefully, get things started on a new path. Watching our conservation education program grow has professionally and personally been an especially good experience for me. I like watching our agency work together with volunteers to make our program grow. At the beginning, no, I did not think we could pull it off. But it kind of mushroomed. I developed a passion. That’s why I feel it’s so important. I like working here. I work with great people with great expectations.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.