Joel Craig and Barb Ferry were named Volunteers of the Year by the Forest Preserve District this fall.
“This award goes to individuals who best display all the attributes we look for in a volunteer – contribution of hours, willingness to grow, and quality of work – all of which are aspects represented by Joel and Barb,” said volunteer supervisor Renee Gauchat.
The dedication of Craig and Ferry and the many other Forest Preserve volunteers continues a 36-year tradition of volunteerism in the District, Gauchat added.
“This decades-long partnership and the commitment of our volunteers make the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s Volunteer Program a model throughout the country,” Gauchat said.
Craig, a volunteer for the past 12 years, said he has always been impressed with those who have won the award before him and didn’t think he would be named. “I think it’s easy to overlook or undervalue your own work, so to be recognized for what I’ve managed to contribute to the District means a lot to me and is a great honor.”
Craig said he grew up across the street from Lake Renwick and he was a budding photographer when an alligator that had been illegally dumped in the lake was spotted in the preserve. He happened to snap some pictures of the creature and the photos “ended up all over the news,” he said. “And that was my gateway to becoming a volunteer.”
Craig initially worked as a volunteer interpreter on bird viewing days at Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve. Later he worked migratory bird hikes and served as a bird monitor. But his role has expanded since then.
“Over the years, I’ve worked events across the District, both as a photographer and as volunteer staff,” he said.
And even during this pandemic year, which started off with fewer programs, Craig pitched in by helping to film nesting birds at Lake Renwick for a Facebook program.
Of all the programs he has been involved with, though, Craig said his favorite is working hummingbird events.
“For the past 10 years, I’ve been a certified trapper and handler, working closely with a federally-permitted hummingbird bander," he said.
This work has taken him to many sites all across the state.
“Most rewarding, though, is getting to share my passion for nature with the many young people who visit us at Lake Renwick," Craig added. "Seeing the excitement in a kid’s eyes when they can look through a scope and see baby birds or nesting bald eagles, how can that not make you smile!”
Ferry said she was surprised to get Volunteer of the Year because she received it five years ago.
“And although I knew I could receive it again, I didn’t think I would as there are so many wonderful volunteers who go above and beyond in both hours and services given,” she said. “I am deeply honored that both my peers and staff have nominated me for this award.”
Ferry began volunteering for the Forest Preserve when she bumped into volunteer supervisor Gauchat at a store. Gauchat asked Ferry if she would like to join the ranks of the District’s volunteers and Ferry jumped at the chance.
“I’ve always volunteered since I was a kid,” Ferry said. “My dad and brother volunteered a lot, too, so it runs in our family as a normal thing to do.”
Ferry started out as an aide at Isle a la Cache Museum assisting with programs. Since then she has worked on resource management, public programs, volunteer registration and recruitment, photography, frog and butterfly monitoring, first-person interpretation for field trips and as a campground host.
Ferry said she has enjoyed all her volunteer activities, but she said working with kids is always her favorite part of volunteering.
“Workdays with Scout troops, school groups, or activities specifically geared toward the little ones are the most rewarding because they are the future stewards of the Earth,” she said. “I love to see their eyes grow in wonder when they make a nature craft, see little water critters, hear birds, see animal tracks or find a caterpillar or insect crawling around. If any one of us can plant the seed of caregiver in them to respect the land and restore/preserve it, then we have done our job.”
Both Craig and Ferry were recognized for their service in 2019. Normally a banquet would have been held in the spring, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the event and eventually the awards were given out virtually in the fall.
Awards given out to other volunteers included:
Group Project of the Year – Patrick Woloszczuk, who led a two-part habitat restoration project involving brush removal in a bat corridor and a seed planting workday.
Outstanding Family of Volunteers Award – Yvonne Hines-Greer and Sabrina Hines who volunteered as animal caretakers at Plum Creek Nature Center.
Outstanding Youth Volunteer Award – Robert Sherwood, who assists adult volunteers with brush removal and mentors other youth volunteers by explaining why nonnative brush is removed.
Outstanding Senior Award – Susan Malkowski who volunteers in many roles, including leading hikes at Lake Renwick Preserve and monitoring butterflies and dragonflies.
Special Acts Award – Lee Ecker, for playing a major role in the development and construction of a main exhibit at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center.
Rookie of the Year Award – Scott Holladay, who played a major role in the District's fishing line recycling effort.
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