Kelly McCann – Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

It is the Centennial year for the National Park Service. The last five months have been full of celebration; national events like the Philadelphia Flower Show and Rose Bowl Parade paid tribute with national park themes. Parks are partying with special events like yoga in the park and an IMAX launch party. Our national park system has influenced the shaping of this country for the last 100 years. Will it play that role for the next hundred?

Perhaps the better question is “can it?”.  Eighty percent of Americans now live in urban areas. Minority populations continue to grow and not all have been historically welcomed into parks. The tech era brings with it the Millenial generation who are less likely to value spending time outdoors than previous generations. Read more about demographic shifts in the last 100 years here. It is clear that the National Park Service needs to change along with its visitors.

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The National Park Service has embraced the Centennial not only as a time to celebrate the past but also as an opportunity to adapt to today’s world. Institutional change is not easy, though. One proposed solution was to bring on a team of Millenials to build that next generation of park stewards. Parks need to make a genuine connection to the people in their community and to visitors around the world. The future of NPS depends on the engagement of youth.

“The expansion of youth development programs is an opportunity to create new sustainable and innovative programming and experiences for the American public that could not otherwise have been accomplished.” -Engaging the Next Generation FY 2015-2017 Long Term Plan, National Park Service.

The group of Millenials became known as the Centennial Volunteer Ambassadors. Tasked with a tall order of building relevancy, diversity, and volunteer numbers, 70 Ambassadors set to work at 63 national park units in 33 different states. We received national recognition for hosting Martin Luther King Day of Service events, designing new educational programming for underserved youth, and recruiting park visitors and volunteers at urban farmer’s markets and state tourism conventions. However, many of the changes brought by Ambassadors seem small, but items like developing capacity in the VIP program or engaging a new partner are sometimes the most important. Each Ambassador had a very different year, shaped by the needs of the park, the community, and volunteers, but there’s no doubt that each of us will leave a legacy.

Kelly McCann teaching visitors how to collect native grass seeds in the park, which would be grown in a national park nursery at a local school.

Centennial Volunteer Ambassadors were hired with the intention of creating lasting change in the community, but my year of service will have a lasting impression on me. I’m proud of the programs that will continue at the park after I have left, giving hundreds of students the opportunity to grow native plants, get their hands dirty during the long winter, and get involved in citizen science. My year at Mississippi National River and Recreation Area has prepared me for my next step towards my career goals, but more importantly,  I have become a part of that next generation of park stewards.