Originally published Aug. 1, 2013.
For Kristie Ridgway, spending time in Bluffton's Oubache State Park with her mother as she was growing up made an impression on her.
"That's where we went camping and so I grew up with a love of state parks," she says.
Flash forward to today and Ridgway works as a seasonal interpreter with Upper Wabash Interpretive Services, in Andrews, and recently graduated from Ball State University, in Muncie, where she attained a degree in natural resources.
Since last fall, Ridgway has participated in the America's State Parks Youth Ambassador program.
"They asked us to send a photo and an essay about a great experience that we had at an Indiana state park," she says. "So, then from there they narrowed it down to however many they wanted in the program, then they contacted us."
The program invites young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 to document their experiences at state parks and reservoirs with articles, photographs, videos and other media. Content is posted to www.AmericasState  Parks.org with the goal of promoting the outdoors to other young adults.
Ridgway, a Hartford City resident, started out as a floating ambassador, covering any state park or reservoir, but was eventually assigned to Indiana's northeast region, which was fine by her.
"The reason this was kind of a great area for me, since I work here with Upper Wabash... we do the interpretive programming at three of the parks that are in my region anyway: Mississinewa, Salamonie and Oubache State Park in Bluffton," she notes. "The other two that I'm kind of in charge of covering are Chain O' Lakes State Park and Pokagon State Park. Those aren't too far from here."
Ridgway says the program's rewards have ranged from material ones, such as receiving an entrance pass that grants her free admission to any state park or reservoir, to ones of a more professional nature.
"For me, especially, meeting the other workers at different parks, other interpreters and going and seeing other nature programs or cultural programs, anything like that, that's been a great experience for me. Just to see new things," she says with enthusiasm.
For Ridgway, though, the program's biggest reward may simply be how it offers her a platform to share her love for the state's parks and reservoirs, which have been significant to her since her days camping at Oubache.
"I really want to help bring awareness to these awesome resources because other people do need those memories that I have," she states. "They need that opportunity to make those wonderful connections with family or get out and hike with friends."
And the importance of state parks and reservoirs extends beyond their standing as spaces to make lasting memories in, Ridgway says.
"They really are protectors of our natural and cultural resources. Maybe you don't come from the countryside, maybe you've not been to many state parks, you've never really explored the natural habitat that Indiana has to offer, and you don't realize how immense it is.
"Through the entire state, habitats are changing. You have different plants, you have different animals. And the culture is changing. You have different native peoples that were in these areas. You have different stories to tell about each region in Indiana. State parks and reservoirs really help to share that with the public," she explains.
Ridgway, who aspires to work full-time as an interpreter at a state park or reservoir, says her time in the Youth Ambassador program will come to an end in December, at which point she may reapply to the program for another year.
"Even if you were interested in not just interpretation, but if you were interested in working at any state park or reservoir in any facet, or if you were interested in journalism or photo journalism, this gets your name out there and it's a great resume-builder," she says of the program.
To learn more about the ambassador program, visit www.americasstateparks.org/About-Ambassadors . To view articles and photos by Ridgway, visit her page at www.americasstateparks.org/ambassador/133/Kristie-Ridgway .
Complete caption: Kristie Ridgway, a seasonal interpreter with Upper Wabash Interpretive Services, in Andrews, is a participant in the America’s State Parks Youth Ambassador Program, which invites young adults to document their experiences at state parks and reservoirs, with the goal of promoting the outdoors to other young adults.