The Buzz

Meet the recreation coordinator: Em Wilcher wants to help you connect with nature

A person standing against a wooden fence with trees in the background.
Em Wilcher. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Em Wilcher wants to see you outside enjoying nature. As the Forest Preserve’s recreation coordinator, that’s her job.

“I love to explain my job as Will County’s fun auntie,” she said. “I get to tell everyone, ‘Let’s go play in the preserves, let’s go for a picnic, let’s play bingo, let’s go for a bike ride.’”

Her job includes hosting public programs and events to get people recreating in the preserves and making them aware of all the Forest Preserve District has to offer.

“It’s just about getting outside, whatever that looks like to you. Whether that’s just spending time outside for a little while or going to a big event with your family, like Fun & Food Trucks,” she said.

Being outside doesn’t have to be complicated, Wilcher said. You don’t have to have the latest and most expensive gear, and you don’t have to make every trip outdoors an adventure or an excursion.

“Even just being out in grass barefoot is good for you,” she said. “You don’t even need to have hiking shoes, and you certainly don’t have to go backcountry skiing or off-trail hiking or into the wilderness to experience nature.”

All you need to connect with nature is nature. “It’s not that complicated to just be outside and let nature be present to you.”

She said doing meaningful work has always been a priority for her, and her role as recreation coordinator is an opportunity to do just that.

“To me, the things that I’ve always been focused on are building community and connecting with people, and getting to do that outside, not only is that the Forest Preserve's mission, but to me that’s the dream — to connect people with nature and with one another.”

Months and years from now, she would love to see people who have met one another through Forest Preserve programs and events and have built relationships around the things they have in common.

“I really just love social connection and creating community and making people feel seen and heard,” she said. “I love people connecting with one another and finding those shared interests."

She’s been able to see the proof of these connections in programs she has led. She hosted a Galentine’s Day program, and the group talked about making new friends and why women being there for one another can change lives.

“They were all so into in it, and at the end of the program, the women, on their own, started singing the Girl Scout song ‘Make New Friends but Keep the Old,’” she said.  “Seeing this group of a dozen women who didn’t know each other when they got there sing about how important friendship is, I had tears in my eyes. It’s just beautiful.”

She said that in a county as large as Will County it can be challenging to find people who enjoy the same outdoor space and activities, and she hopes her job helps people find those with whom they share that common ground.

She said the outdoors has been a part of her life at every age and stage. She remembers as a kid enjoying hiking with her grandparents. After high school, she worked as a camp counselor at a camp, teaching outdoor leadership skills to teens. She attended college in Colorado and fell in love with the mountains, and she grew to love the desert when she lived in New Mexico.

“Being on a trail is pretty much my favorite thing to do,” she said.

She can’t spend all her time at work out on a trail, but she’s OK with that too. The nature of the job requires her to spend time on administrative tasks and planning and preparing for programs, but Wilcher said she doesn’t see that as a drawback. She enjoys her time spent in the office and building relationships with coworkers to create positive outcomes.

“When I get to collaborate across departments and things are happening and clicking well, that just makes me happy,” she said.

She said she’s asked regularly if she is a competitive person, and she is not. She enjoys collaborating with people more than competing against them and sees that as a path toward progress. “My thing is always collaboration over competition. It’s not about me winning over you or us winning over them, it’s that we can all bring each other up.”

Her job makes her a feel a little bit like an evangelist for nature. “The idea is if I can just open the door and get people to come to one thing, then you can capture a heart, capture a mind. It really is like evangelism in nature,” she said.

Her ultimate goal is for people to understand how making time for the outdoors — whatever that looks like for them — is beneficial for everyone.

“When you’re healthier, it’s good for everyone. Your family benefits from that, your coworkers benefit from that, your community benefits from that,” she said. “If you can do those things to bring a little bit more joy as you live your life, it changes the world. I know it’s cheesy, but if we all do a little bit to be happier and healthier, it’s a beautiful thing. If we can all make a point to be outside and make us a little bit happier, what does that look like for society?”

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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