Joel Craig grew up across the street from Lake Renwick Preserve and spent a lot of time there in his youth. And although he has since moved away from Plainfield, he remains a frequent visitor to the preserve, serving as an interpreter through the Forest Preserve District’s volunteer program.
A volunteer with the District for the past 10 years, Craig not only assists at Lake Renwick, but also works Forest Preserve special events, usually as a photographer. He also lends a hand in other capacities as needed. For example, last year, he volunteered at the District’s annual Hummingbird Festival & Nature Celebration, operating the traps for bird bander Vern Kleen. Craig has worked alongside Kleen for the past eight years at events hosted by the Will County Audubon Society.
His start as a volunteer with the Forest Preserve comes with an interesting backstory. After a work injury forced him to give up his job as a carpenter, he started getting into photography and going to the bird-viewing programs at Lake Renwick. He happened to be at the preserve on the day in July 2008 when an alligator was spotted on the island, and he got some good photos of it.
“At the time, I had a part-time job as a news photographer for The Enterprise, so for me it was a huge story that kind of blew up when the larger media got ahold of it,” Craig said. “I was actually interviewed by Channel 5 news, and somehow CNN got my phone number.”
(For those wondering, the alligator’s story has a happy ending. A wildlife ecologist from the Forest Preserve District who had previously worked in Florida and had experience with alligators was able to capture it and turn it over to the Chicago Herpetological Society.)
Today, Craig looks back on the moment as a learning experience on the role preserves play in society. “It was my first lesson in balancing the public’s right to know, conservation and protecting our preserves, one that I failed in miserably at the time.”
Volunteering with the Forest Preserve District is a natural extension of Craig’s interest in nature – particularly when it comes to birds and butterflies – dating back to his childhood. “Neighborhood baseball games would come to a screeching halt if a tiger swallowtail flew across the field,” he said.
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He initially began volunteering through the Will County Audubon, monitoring nesting great horned owls and tracking spring migration and arrival dates with photographs. Taking the next step to working with visitors as an interpreter was a natural offshoot of his personality.
“My best friend’s mom, who I’m very close with, was a teacher, so I thought I’d want to be one when I grew up,” he explained. “That didn’t work out, but being an interpreter for the District is a way I get to scratch that teaching itch by educating the public about the importance of this really special place.”
He said he particularly enjoys working with kids, helping them get an up-close look at nesting birds or newly hatched chicks. “I feel like if we get the kids hooked on coming to the preserves, we’ve got them for life,” he said, “and the adults in their lives will follow.”
Craig, who now lives in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood with his partner Christine and daughter Alex, enjoys his volunteer work with the Forest Preserve District, but it’s just one of several volunteering opportunities he’s committed to. He remains a volunteer with the Will County Audubon, while also volunteering for the Plainfield Historical Society and serving as an elder at his church. He grew up as a fifth-generation Plainfield resident and, while still living in Plainfield and serving on the board of the Plainfield Historical Society, worked with two others to write a local history curriculum that was incorporated into a social studies textbook used in Plainfield School District 202.
“Yes, I never finished college, but I’m a credited co-author of a school textbook. What a country!” Craig quipped.
Through his time as a volunteer, he’s also gotten two of his children involved. He’s trained his daughter Anna to work as a trapper and handler for hummingbird programs, and his son Jimmy, who has special needs, helps out at a variety of District events.
Volunteering has become especially important to Craig since his work injury not only left him unable to continue working as a carpenter but also meant he could no longer participate in sports, something that had been a big part of his life. He played basketball and softball for years, traveling the country to play in softball tournaments and winning the World Series three times. He’s even been inducted into the Illinois Softball Hall of Fame.
“I think after my work injury, I had to reinvent myself in a way that made me feel useful,” he said. “Losing the ability to (play softball) and play basketball in the winter, it was important for me to find something that excited me.”
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