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Debi Shapiro’s ‘Happy Place’ – making memories with her mom at Rock Run Rookery Preserve

Woman on a trail with her camera
Photo by Chad Merda

Debi Shapiro of Lockport faced a dilemma several years ago when her chronically ill mother moved in with her. 

Her mom, Juanita Barnette, couldn’t walk far or drive, so Shapiro worried that hours and hours at home would be boring for her mother. 

“I was looking for places I could go with my mom in the car,” she said. “Because she was unhealthy and she needed to be driven around, but she wanted to go out and do something. She got sick of looking at the four walls.”

Then Shapiro, who always loved photography as a young woman and had picked up the hobby again a few years ago, came up with a great plan. She started bringing her mother with her on her photography jaunts to local Will County forest preserves. 

“The preserves were our entertainment,” she said. “I would load her up in the car and we would drive from preserve to preserve to see if we could find something beautiful or different. She was my spotter and my copilot.”

Because her mom suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, there were times the two women never left the car. Sometimes Shapiro’s mom could use a walker to view more, other times a wheelchair.

These outings were a perfect way to get her mom out of the house, Shapiro said. Eventually, mother and daughter started to recognize the wildlife they were seeing, especially the birds. 

“And Rock Run Rookery is just probably one of the favorite places we would go every time, just because it’s always so serene and quiet,” Shapiro said. 

Happy place

That’s why Rock Run Rookery Preserve is one of Shapiro’s happy places. Birds can be found there year-round, she said. And this past January, the site was a haven for eagles, drawing photographers from near and far. It was so crowded, Shapiro said she sometimes had trouble finding a parking place. 

Rock Run Rookery isn’t the only preserve she visited with her mother. McKinley Woods also was a favorite.  

“She grew up in West Virginia in a rural area, but when we drove through McKinley Woods it felt like home to her,” Shapiro said of her mom.

And Shapiro said she wishes more people knew how a drive into or through a preserve could boost the spirits of someone with a disability or illness. She said her mother really enjoyed each outing because of all that she could see.

“She started to appreciate nature in a way that she had never done before,” Shapiro said. “It was fun. She had only lived here the last five years of her life, but it was, for me, our best five years because we got to do things together.” 



City girl warms up to nature

While Shapiro spends a lot of time in the preserves, she describes herself as a city girl. After being raised in Harvey and living as a young married woman in Dolton, Shapiro wasn’t especially drawn to nature or the great outdoors.

But she loves photography. She even had a dark room in her house decades ago when she would photograph bands and downtown Chicago scenes. But after her son and daughter were born, she had her hands full raising her kids so her photography hobby fell by the wayside.

Shapiro and her husband, Ron, moved to Lockport 30 years ago, and Debi quit her Chicago job in the accounting department of a large law firm and became a real estate agent so she could spend more time with her children. Now that her kids are grown, Shapiro is looking toward retiring in a few years, and she hopes her husband will start taking photos with her. 

Shapiro admits that she views her photography more as a challenge than a nature outing.

“It was about the sport of capturing the movement of the … bird or animal or whatever,” she said. “So I kept playing with it and working with it and doing things and I got better and better at it and really started enjoying it.”

These photo outings have been important for Shapiro. And while she isn’t what she calls a khaki clad “nature nerd,” she does appreciate her outdoor excursions and the wildlife she captures with her camera now more than ever.

And Shapiro said she now recognizes so many more species and she doesn’t have to look them up in books as much anymore. 

“I think it’s because this place has made me love nature and made me appreciate it a little bit more than I might have done before,” she said.

She also appreciates being able to post her photos on the Will County Wildlife Facebook group, which she said has helped her make new friends, and she takes full advantage of the Forest Preserve District's interactive map to plot her outings. 

Special memories

And the outings have taken on special significance now that her mother passed away a year ago in September at the age of 82 after beating cancer, but succumbing to COPD. Shapiro remembers all the good times she had on the forest preserve visits with her “cohort in crime,” she said.

“On days like today, when I'm feeling a little emotional, the preserves are my therapy,” she said. “I will take off in the car and head out in hopes of finding something beautiful to remind me of our adventures.”

Shapiro said the outings “quiet her brain” and keep it from racing.

“It’s just that quiet time, that time to just sit and relax and chill, which is something that I don’t do very well. It’s not in my nature to be laid back. So this is my laid back. And I’m glad I found it because it's been a great release.”

As Shapiro walked back to her car after being interviewed at Rock Run Rookery, she stopped suddenly.

“There are two cardinals in there,” she said as she stared at bushes along the trail. “It’s always my mom watching. I always say when one goes by, that’s my mom looking.”


If you've found your own "Happy Place" in the Forest Preserve District of Will County, contact public information officer Cindy Cain at [email protected] so you can be featured in this "Happy Place" series of stories and videos.