Lee Irvin has spent two summers at Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Kharisma Day scouts the wildlife at Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. Photos courtesy of Lee Irvin and Kharisma Day
For several summers, Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex has hired interns through the Wildlife Refuge Exposure to Diversity (WiRED) Initiative at the Greening Youth Foundation, which reaches out to diverse, underserved and underrepresented youth to develop a new generation of natural resource stewards. WiRED is a Service-only initiative that placed 11 interns this past year.
Diane Borden-Billiot, the visitor services manager at the complex, says, “The Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex has been fortunate to host [these interns]. It is a great way to obtain and become familiar with different perspectives regarding what we do every day.”
In 2014, the Service joined forces with leading African American fraternity Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., to help youth experience the natural world and promote interest in conservation and the biological sciences. A year later, the Service inked a similar partnership with Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., the sister organization of Phi Beta Sigma. Since then, refuges, hatcheries and other Service offices have teamed up with local chapters of the fraternity and sorority to engage youth in outdoor recreation, biological sciences and healthy activity in nature. Service leadership has also attended the groups’ meetings, with then-Director Dan Ashe speaking at Phi Beta Sigma’s International Conclave in 2015. The internships are an extension of this outreach.
Lee Irvin, a member of Phi Beta Sigma and student at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, has interned at the complex the past two summers. Fellow Pine Bluff student Kharisma Day, a member of Zeta Phi Beta, just finished her first summer internship.
Borden-Billiot encourages others in the Service to work with the Greening Youth Foundation or similar organizations to find candidates from diverse backgrounds for all types of internships. With the help of the foundation, the refuge complex placed interns enthusiastic about engaging in an immersive experience with the Service.
Meet Kharisma Day
||Kharisma Day holds a dove. Photo courtesy of Kharisma Day
Day, from a small town in Arkansas, says, “I knew how to fish as well as farm since I was 6 years old. Pretty much our life was spent being outdoors.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t had obstacles. Day says she is highly allergic to red wasps. “It was a big fear of mine because being stung by those insects was a life or death situation.” But she overcame that fear “because being outdoors is something that I love.”
Kharisma’s love of nature was solidified through time spent with her grandfather on his farm. There, she picked purple-hulled peas and learned that cotton from the farm was used as material for clothes and other products.
“Our food, clothes, shelter and pretty much our way of life are connected to nature,” she says. “I just wish people would take the time out to spend a day outdoors.”
Her internship definitely made an impression. “I was so honored to have this opportunity to be able to do something I love to do on a professional prospective.”
And she is ready to dive into conservation as a career.
“I believe what drew me to conservation as a possible profession is that I will be actually making a difference,” she says, adding, “Being outdoors solidified the deal for me.”
While Day revels in her connection to nature, her friends are more hesitant.
They “have a new-found appreciation for nature when spending a day outdoors with me,” she says, adding, “Actually one of my best friends went hiking for the first time.”
Meet Lee Irvin
|Lee Irvin says the “coolest” thing he did in his internships was qualifying as a wildland firefighter. Photo courtesy of Lee Irvin
Growing up in a small town in Illinois, Irvin says, “I fished, hunted and observed nature every chance I got.”
It helped to have parents enthusiastic about his budding passion. “My parents loved the fact that I was so connected with nature so I was able to be outside more often.”
He says he always knew he wanted to protect wildlife.
Irvin remembers playing in the woods behind his parents’ home as a 9-year-old, “when I noticed a fallen bird nest. I picked it up along with four eggs and I climbed up the tree and placed the nest back from where it fell.” He says his parents saw this and stared at him. Thinking he was in trouble, he “asked what was wrong and they replied, ‘You are going to do great things for this world.’”
But, he says, “Little did I know until I became an adult there was a way to turn my passion into a successful career.”
After his summers with the Service, Irvin is more convinced than ever that he will go into conservation. “There are so many awesome experiences during both internships,” Irvin says.
The “coolest, hands-down,” he adds, was qualifying as a wildland firefighter, earning his “red card” in firefighting lingo. The toughest, he says, was the pack test for that red card. That’s a physical fitness test that measures minimum required aerobic endurance and muscular strength for wildland firefighters. It’s called a pack test because you must walk three miles in 45 minutes while carrying 45 lbs.
With the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program and partnerships such as those with Phi Beta Sigma and Zeta Phi Beta, the Service is trying to engage diverse audiences and grow a more diverse workforce.
To reach more people and become a more diverse agency, Irvin says the Service should tell its story to students — grade school to high school — in diverse communities. “An early impression is a lasting one,” he says.
To reach her friends and others like them, Day also encourages outreach “that will help strengthen the ties to the local community.” She mentions afterschool programs as one idea.
Don’t be surprised if you see Day and Irvin “wearing the brown” of the Fish and Wildlife Service one day. “FWS would be an awesome employer,” Day says.
MATT TROTT, External Affairs, Headquarters
||This article is a preview of the winter issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine. The issue is due online in finished form in early February.