The buzz

Meet a Naturalist: Angela Rafac, a lifelong learner

A woman standing in front of a large tree trunk.
Angela Rafac is an interpretive naturalist at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Curiosity seems like a natural personality trait for any educator, and for Angela Rafac, a lifelong curiosity about the world around her is part of what has her striving to always grow her knowledge.

Rafac, an interpretive naturalist at the Forest Preserve’s Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon, stumbled into her job quite by accident, after a friend told her of a job opening at the District and encouraged her to apply. She was studying for a master’s degree in education while also substitute teaching. At the time, she wasn’t even aware such a job existed, although today she knows it’s a perfect fit for her lifelong curiosity and she feels lucky to have found it. Almost 20 years later, she’s still learning and knows she always will be.

“There’s so much I don’t know yet,” she said. “That’s one of my lines during programs, that I could do a much longer hike on what I don’t know yet.”

Soon after she started with the Forest Preserve in spring 2004, she had a validating moment when a friend called asking her to look at an unusual cloud formation in the sky. She had just led a program about clouds for a local Girl Scout troop, so she knew the clouds that day were nothing to worry about. They were puffy mammatus clouds, not very common but no cause for concern.

“It felt so great to know what I was seeing and be able to share with my friend,” she said. “I knew I had found my career.”

Her love of nature and learning allow her to connect with people individually, even when working with large groups. Introverted by nature, leading programs allows her to focus on something other than herself.

“I’ve always been super shy, so I never would have thought my career would be public speaking. I’m always terrified,” she said of speaking in front of a group, “but the attention is not on me when I’m outside hiking.”

Rafac considers herself a champion for things that are often overlooked in nature, like spiders and lichens, for example. As a kid, she loved bugs and spiders, and then as she got older, she realized those things that are misunderstood need an advocate.

In addition to heading up hikes and educational programs on these overlooked parts of the world around us, Rafac leads the popular monthly Happy Mornings Yoga and Hike program at Four Rivers. She’s a certified yoga instructor, having completed the necessary training and coursework on her own time.

“I love yoga, and I hate its image,” she said of her motivation for developing the yoga program. “I just wanted to bring it to a different audience because it’s so beneficial to people.”

Part of being an educator — whether in a traditional school setting or in an outdoor environment — means repeating the same lessons over and over. That may seem like a drawback for some people, but Rafac views it as an opportunity. While the topics of the programs may be the same from month to month and year to year, the people in attendance are not, and that’s what makes each program unique.

She said she has been doing programs about the aquatic insects that live in our waterways for 19 years now, both as a public program and for education and scout groups. It’s the program she has done more than any other, but each experience is different than the last. This year, for example, she offered it as a public program, and it was the first time she has seen caddis flies in many years. And the group in attendance was enthusiastic about the topic and ready to get a little wet and dirty in the process.

“It was just so much fun,” she said. “The kids were so excited and ready to explore, the parents were involved. It never doesn’t give me joy to see” how people react to their discoveries.

And it’s not just students and scouts and program attendees who learn at Rafac’s programs. She learns too, and what she learns helps make her a better teacher, she said.

“Every time someone changes my way of thinking, the program changes.”

On her own outdoor adventures, she’s more of a stop and smell the roses kind of person than a plowing through to get to the finish line kind of person. “I don’t need the challenge,” she said. “It's more about the experience.”

Those experiences are what fuel her to keep learning, whether it be about a new topic or more about an old favorite. Every day is a new experience because the world around us is not static.

“Nature is never the same,” she said.

About this series: The Forest Preserve's program coordinators, recreation coordinator and interpretive naturalists are among the friendly faces that greet you when you visit any of our visitor centers and preserves. They are the men and women who lead the District's public programs as well as educational and recreational programs held in the preserves and beyond. They are the people who pique your curiosity and answer your queries, and we want you to get to know more about them and what drives them.

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