Becoming a National Park Ranger - An American Dream - South Dade News Leader: Florida City

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Becoming a National Park Ranger - An American Dream

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Posted: Saturday, July 5, 2014 12:15 am

  Wearing the iconic flat hat, and grey and green uniform of a National Park Ranger is a dream of many who have visited any of the more than 400 National Park units in the United States (US).  Whether it was the Liberty Bell, the Grand Canyon, or the Everglades - all the rangers in the National Park Service (NPS) share a passion to protect these vast natural and cultural resources of our nation and to share the stories of these places with visitors to inspire new supporters of the NPS mission to preserve, protect and, interpret these special places. 

  This is a story about a family who were inspired by the NPS mission and by an NPS Ranger that changed their lives. Maria Thomson was so inspired by a visit to Everglades National Park and her interaction with park rangers that today, she and her two children are American citizens and successful Park Rangers at Everglades and Biscayne National Parks.

First Generation Ranger – Maria’s story

  I arrived in the United States in 1980, from Argentina, with my husband and young daughter Maria. Miami, at that time, seemed more of a senior citizen community and we found it difficult to find housing for a family with small children. In 1983, the family grew with the arrival of my son, Rudy. Like many immigrant families in Miami we initially thought our time in the US would be a temporary opportunity, however the many demands of a young family away from our homeland wore on my marriage and the stress led to divorce by 1986.  By this time, I had fallen in love the US so I decided to raise my family here. 

  One day, I was invited to participate in a field trip to Everglades National Park with my daughter’s elementary school. Little did I know that this would change my life forever! Full of excited children, the school bus entered Everglades National Park. As the children sat on a grassy area, a park ranger arrived to talk to the class. He was wearing the grey and green ranger uniform and flat hat.  He started talking to the kids about the Everglades. 

  When he said “I have the best job in the world, I get to travel to this and other national parks and talk about how great they are to kids just like you.” At that place, in that moment, I decided that I wanted to have the best job in the world! Someday, I wanted to come back to this park and wear that uniform; I was going to do whatever it took to become a National Park Service Ranger. 

  The first step was to become an American citizen so I could work for the federal government. So it began - work, study, work, study and more work, along with raising a family.  This was a challenging time, but we made it work and I tried to make it fun too.  Building strong family bonds through quality time was important, and I maximized any low budget entertainment I could find, like $1 movies, $.99 kites, camping, and free concerts.  I started to pursue an Associate of Arts degree at Miami Dade Community College (MDCC).  

  Every time I visited the Everglades and saw a park ranger it renewed my desire to have the best job in the world.  Time passed, the family weathered teenage years, loss of my father, and Hurricane Andrew, but we thrived as did my dream to be a park ranger.  I finished my studies at MDCC and went to Florida International University (FIU) to study the environment and conservation; though I wasn’t sure of the path I was very sure of the finish line.

  Ten years after that fortuitous field trip, I got a call and was offered a park ranger seasonal job!   On January 24, 2000, I drove to Shark Valley with my heart racing and legs trembling, and was greeted with a beautiful rainbow and hundreds of white birds who welcomed this brand new National Park Ranger.  I’ve been at the park 14 years now, and never looked back.  I do have the best job in the world, as I share the science, history, and beauty of this natural wonder with thousands of visitors from all over the world and of course I now share them with my grandchildren as well.

Second Generation – Rudy’s story

  I was born and raised in sunny south Florida in a very tight knit family. We seemed to do everything together and that included enjoying our time in the great outdoors. Being part of a migrant family wasn’t really a big deal growing up because it seemed like everyone around us was the same. It wasn’t until later in life, as a young adult, that I began to realize the magnitude of what my mother had accomplished.

  Growing up, I considered myself an average kid who enjoyed sports, video games, and wrestling on television. Our family routine included lots of outdoor adventures with camping trips that we all loved; Key West, Larry and Penny Thompson Park, and our favorite (our Disney World) Long Pine Key in Everglades National Park.

  I will never forget the excited childhood anticipation of driving into Everglades National Park near Homestead.  An impatient child, anxious to get to our destination, that road seemed to go on forever! Finally, we’d reach the Slash Pine trees that towered over us as we drove into the park.  That drastic change in environment was breathtaking even for a kid.  I remember thinking we were entering a different dimension of complete natural beauty that was nothing like our everyday life in the city. 

  Years passed, and as my sister and I grew older, the one constant that kept our family close was the camping trips to the Everglades. I enjoyed the outdoors so much that I was drawn to work at a Miami-Dade County summer camp at Bill Sadowski Park and Nature Center. That summer job turned into a year-round part time job as I finished high school and began college studying park management. My mother and sister, by this time, were both working for the National Park Service. I scoffed at the idea of working in the NPS because of how official it seemed and I thought, at the time, that they wore dorky uniforms.

  Youthful ideas change, and by the time I was a junior in college, I began longing to wear that NPS uniform and flat hat, it just didn’t seem dorky any more. I began applying to Biscayne, and Everglades National Parks and Big Cypress National Preserve hoping my time working at county parks and my studies at FIU would help me realize my dream. I was one of the lucky ones, offered a 60 day position at Biscayne National Park.  As I considered leaving the security of the county position, I was inspired by the memory of my mom taking a bigger risk when she began as a park ranger and I too decided the chance at the “best job in the world” was worth the risk.

  That first National Park Service job at Biscayne National Park was inspiring. The park itself was so beautiful. I couldn’t believe I was giving programs over Biscayne Bay and traveling to Elliot Key almost daily with visitors from around the world. My 60 days came to an end and I desperately wanted to stay in the park service and sent my resume out again. This time Everglades National Park offered me a seasonal position as an Interpretive Park Ranger. Seven years later I’m still here!

  Being a Park Ranger is truly the best job in the world.  I interact with visitors from all over the world that envy what we do, and where we work. I’ve changed the lives of first time visitors that never thought they’d venture out into a national park alongside alligators. I’ve met thousands of students from our schools while wearing that iconic green and grey uniform. I am beyond lucky to be where I am today and it could not have been done without the hard work, and sacrifice of my mom. Without her there would be no story to tell, at least not one as good as this one.

 

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