Q&A: Learning about Outdoor Recreation through the Pathways Program

By: Heather Gordon

April 04, 2023

Category: Behind the Scenes

Each summer, Three Rivers Park District offers the opportunity to explore careers in the outdoors through the Pathways Internship Program. Open to high-school and college students, the paid internship program provides a hands-on experience that teaches participants skills that will help them in their careers. Opportunities span across parks and career fields, including park operations, outreach, natural resources and park maintenance, allowing interns to explore different areas of employment in parks and recreation.

We asked Heather Gordon, a recreation program specialist at Three Rivers who supervises Pathways interns at the Outdoor Recreation School, some questions to learn more about the experience.

Hi, Heather! Can you tell the readers a bit about yourself and your role at Three Rivers?

I have been a lifelong lover of the outdoors. My first career was in event planning where I spent a lot of time indoors at hotels and convention centers and other meeting spaces. Through that experience, I realized that I wanted to turn my love of the outdoors into a career. So, I pursued a master’s degree in outdoor recreation.  When I realized that a job as a recreation specialist combined event/program planning and teaching outdoors, I was sold! I started as a volunteer for the Outdoor Recreation School, also known as ORS. I then became a seasonal educator, and finally a permanent recreation specialist, which is my current role.

I love the mix of planning and teaching, and I love being able to share my passion for the outdoors with others. Overseeing the Pathways interns for ORS is one of the highlights of the work that I do. I enjoy the opportunity to work with interns who are learning more about the outdoors, discovering what a career can look like in parks, and gaining job skills and personal development.

What does a Pathways internship with the ORS team look like?

The summer kicks off for our interns with a full week of training with all of the ORS staff. During this week, they participate in mock versions of our recreation programs like stand up paddleboarding, archery and many more. For many of our interns, this week is often the first time they have ever tried some of our recreation activities, which is always so much fun for our team, because we love sharing our lessons with people who are trying activities for the first time!

They also learn soft skills like how to work with neurodivergent participants, manage camper behaviors, be sensitive to different cultures, engage volunteers during programs and other skills that are necessary for leading outdoor recreation programs. This is a really fun week of learning and getting to know staff.

A Three Rivers instructor demonstrates archery form to a group of children.
Archery is one of the many activities that interns can learn — or learn how to teach — during the summer.

Once the summer is underway, our interns have a chance to work with our staff on summer camps and other programs. Each week is unique. One week our interns may be on a four-day paddling camp, the next week they may help with an afternoon fishing program with youth and a weekend archery program with families. Throughout all of these different program types, our staff spend a lot of time “working aloud” with our interns so they get a good understanding of why we do things the way we do. We’ll explain everything from why we set archery targets on a flat area to why we teach paddle strokes in the shade when it’s 100 degrees out. Interns assist our staff with loading and setting up equipment; they support our staff during activity instruction, engage with and provide encouragement to program participants, and help clean up at the end of the day. Later in the summer, as they become more comfortable with the activities, they may decide they want to teach certain parts of the programs: explaining the parts of a bow and arrow, showing how to put on a lifejacket, leading an icebreaker or group game with campers or teaching some of the kayak paddle strokes. 

What do you think is unique about this particular internship?

The interns’ roles on programs are very supportive in nature and is a chance for them to observe and learn from our staff. This puts them in a unique position: Because they are often learning our activities alongside participants, they can easily make one-to-one connections with participants who are also learning new activities. Our interns also do a wonderful job of connecting with shyer participants and help them feel connected to the activity and the rest of the group. This unique role can be so valuable to our programs and helping participants feel comfortable learning new activities.

Apart from being onsite with our team, interns also participate in the overall Pathways Internship Program. They meet other interns who may be similar in age or background to them. Some days are filled with learning essential job skills while other opportunities expand on learning more about the broader Three Rivers Park District and meeting different staff at various parks.

A group of Pathways interns watch canoeing instruction.
A group of Pathways interns watch canoeing instruction.

What are some ways you’ve seen an intern learn and grow through the Pathways program? 

One of our recent interns, Kat, came to us with a strong love for the outdoors, but had very little experience with many of the recreation activities we teach. During the canoe portion of our staff training, she was so eager to learn and wanted to immediately be in the stern position of the canoe with one of our returning staff in the bow position. The stern position, in the back of the boat, is most responsible for steering the canoe and it is not an easy thing to do, especially if you have little canoeing experience. I was so impressed by her willingness to try and her willingness to be coached by one of our returning staff. She figured it out and was welcoming of all the support from her canoe partner. By the middle of the summer, she had really improved her paddling skills, and during paddling programs she was able to share tips with newer paddlers.

Kat also shined when it came to connecting with campers and participants. One of her final programs with us was a fishing program with a group of kids with cognitive disabilities. Though she started the internship very shy, you would never know from watching her during this program. Kat helped instruct by showing the different parts of the fishing pole and explaining how to drop cast. She made instant connections with many of the kids and gave them lots of fishing tips and encouragement. By the end of the program, it was clear that having her there was a highlight of the day for the kids on that program. 

Learn more about the Three Rivers Park District’s Pathways Internship Program. Applications for this year’s program are open through May 7, 2023, with a priority application deadline of April 9, 2023.

About the Author

Tracy, wearing a Three Rivers Park District baseball cap, smiles for the camera.

A lifelong lover of the outdoors, Heather is a recreation program specialist with the Outdoor Recreation School (ORS). Heather coordinates and teaches outdoor recreation programs for ORS at locations throughout the park district. She also coordinates volunteers and interns for ORS.


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