SIOUX CITY — Following in her grandmother's footsteps, Dawn Snyder went to college to be a teacher.
The only problem: the education classes were boring.
"My real love is just being outside. I started finding my niche when I started taking zoology and biology classes," Snyder said. "I wanted to teach, but I didn't want to be in a classroom, so I became a teacher of the outdoors."
For more than 34 years, Snyder's led field trips and programs at Woodbury County parks and the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, showing children and adults new ways to appreciate what surrounds them outside.
"That's the whole point, and the whole reason is to be a place where people can connect with nature," said Snyder, who will retire Feb. 2 as the nature center's education programs director. She'll be honored during an open house from 3-6 p.m. on Feb. 1 at the nature center.
People are also reading…
Dawn Snyder, education program director at Woodbury County's Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, is retiring Feb. 2. She was hired as the county's f…
Snyder has seen a couple generations of excited children pull up in school buses, excited at the possibility of seeing a deer or a turkey in the wild. They weren't always fortunate enough to spot a turkey or deer, but they were lucky to have Snyder leading them on the journey, pointing out other animals and plants seen along the way and sharing knowledge gained through years of her own outdoor exploration in western Iowa's Loess Hills and abroad.
Snyder initially figured she'd gain no more than five years of Loess Hills knowledge.
The day she graduated from Iowa State University with her fisheries and wildlife biology degree in 1988, Snyder received a job offer from then-Woodbury County Conservation Board director Rick Schneider to be the county's first full-time naturalist. After thinking it over during a 10-day hiking trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, Snyder, a Tripoli native who grew up exploring the river and woods near her northeast Iowa home, decided to pass up a possible chance at a similar job expected to open in her home county and move to the western side of the state.
Her job was to develop an environmental education program to introduce children to nature.
"I really had a clean slate, and there was no road map to follow," she said.
At the time, she, Schneider and a secretary were the only members of the Conservation Board's administrative office, the three of them sharing one computer on the eighth floor of the Woodbury County Courthouse. Snyder would haul materials a couple blocks away to her car and head out to schools or county parks to put on her programs.
It wasn't an ideal setup, and in 1989, Snyder mentioned the idea of creating a nature center where visitors could come view exhibits and she'd have more room to store educational materials and conduct programs for children and adults. Long story short, the idea caught on and, through the hard work of a number of people, the Loess Ridge Nature Center opened in 1995. It was renamed the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center two years later.
"It's been a dream come true," Snyder said of the nature center's creation. "It was such a team effort and neat to see people from so many facets come together. Oftentimes I refer to it as my first child."
As is often the case with real-life children, it became an anchor, giving Snyder reason to put down roots in Woodbury County. She couldn't move away when there were so many things to accomplish as she and others kept dreaming up project after project to enhance the nature center.
"I didn't really expect to stay in Sioux City and Woodbury County for more than five years," Snyder said. "We had so many great opportunities here, and things kept evolving. My best memories are how it's shaped friendships and my family."
Over the years, she's gained many close friends through her work and has never tired of seeing the excitement of children making a connection with nature. Through their observations and curiosity, she's frequently learning along with them.
"The neat thing about being a biological educator is you learn by asking questions," she said.
The Conservation Board's administrative staff has grown to 11 people since Snyder came to Sioux City, and the nature center continues to add programs and other features to attract visitors. It's a job that's never really done, Snyder said, but she had reached a point at which she'd accomplished many of her goals and felt it was time to step down.
You'll still find Snyder outdoors during her retirement. She'll have more time to spend with her own gardens and other organizations to which she belongs, and it's a safe bet she'll be spending a number of hours out at the nature center, now as a volunteer, helping with various projects.
"It's been a huge honor, and I'm humbled by all the comments and support and hard work people have done at the nature center and the county parks," she said.
Like a tree in the woods, Snyder's career began with a small shoot and branched out over time. Now it's time to enjoy the full growth of a career spent sparking an interest in nature in others.