Theresa Cullen reflects on her adventures in Gatlinburg, Tennessee as part of the National Park Friends Alliance Meeting held in early November. To learn about how she received this opportunity check out Part 1!
The National Park Friends Alliance Meeting convened in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a town nestled at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The conference was hosted by the Friends of the Smokies, in partnership with the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation and the Steering Committee of the Friends Alliance. This group was created to bring together “Friend Groups” whose mission is to support the National Parks. I found myself among other like-minded individuals who share similar stories about working to support National Parks and provide opportunities and experiences for youth and communities.
The meeting hall was filled with 300 people and I slipped into one of the only open seats remaining. During a break, I introduced myself to my table partners to learn that Jewel Harris, Superintendent of the William Howard Taft Historic Site, grew up in DC’s Ward 7 of Anacostia. She began her career as a junior park ranger and worked her way up the Park system. Not only did she know the Alice Ferguson Foundation by name, but I learned that she provided Bridging the Watershed programs for five years in Great Falls National Park. She told me she could still lead our Macroinvertebrates module today!
The Conference opened with Charles “Chuck” Sams III, the 19th Director of the National Park Service, giving welcoming remarks to the group. Mr. Sams is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and is the first Native American to serve in this role.
Another inspirational speaker was Cassius Cash, the Superintendent of Smoky Mountains National Park and the first person of color in this role. We learned that during the pandemic his team created a program Smokies Hikes for Healing to offer opportunities for people from different walks of life to come together and share stories, struggles and to help understand the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. The program was very popular and they received many applications – so many that they had to make selections. To my fellow superintendents, he stated, “We are living in untraditional times. Use your platform untraditionally.” “(Friends, other non profits) …. You are the wind to our back to move the Park service mission.”
I thought of the Alice Ferguson Foundation and our work with the National Park Service – through our stewardship of the native lands of the Piscataway and with our Bridging the Watershed programming that serves 4,000 students annually. Prior to the pandemic we worked in 17 Parks in Maryland, Virginia, DC and West Virginia to bring these modules to students across the Watershed region. I am proud of our Foundation for leading this program for the last 20 years and through the pandemic these past two years.
I did get to connect with my Friends Leadership Institute cohort and it was wonderful to meet with individuals in person!
And so I bid farewell to the beautiful mountains of the Smokies. On my drive through the Park as I made my way back to Knoxville for my flight I passed other tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of a bear ( I actually did see a bear but that was during dinner the night before.)
As Ken Burns wrote, National Parks are “America’s best idea.” And we at the Alice Ferguson Foundation think so too. This conference helped me to understand the partnerships between the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation and groups such as the Alice Ferguson Foundation who are considered “friends and partners.” I left with more understanding and certainly more “friends” than I had before! I hope to attend next year’s event in Cleveland, Ohio!