Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional Milwaukee NNS series on "20-somethings" in Milwaukee.
Elise Myers is in her element, leading about 15 children from Downtown Montessori Academy through snowy woods behind the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park. On a nicer day, they would have seen more insects, birds and other native species. No matter, though, as for 90 minutes she happily shows them trees, rocks and squirrel nests.
"It’s amazing that a little bit of education can change someone’s mindset to caring about wild animals instead of thinking it’s gross," she said.
Myers, 25, who lives in the Harambee neighborhood, is an environmental educator at the center. She runs classes for students from local schools that are designed to connect them with nature. For most of these children, it is an encounter they almost never have.
"I have an exciting job where I get to share that passion (for the environment) with kids who live in the city, who don’t get to have as much outdoor playtime," said Myers, who earned her master’s degree in education from Marquette University last May.
Kristin Anglea, the ecology center’s environmental education manager, said Myers’ enthusiasm for the outdoors easily rubs off on students.
"She gets right down on their level, whether it’s little four-year-olds or high school students," Anglea said. "She’s relaxed and she’s very clear about what she needs kids to do, or wants them to do, but she’s also really good at listening and providing the space for kids to share with her."
This passion started during Myers’ childhood in Newbury Park, Calif., an hour north of Los Angeles. Growing up within driving distance of both the beach and the Santa Monica mountains gave her an appreciation for plants and animals.
She also credits her parents — a graphic designer and a photographer — with nurturing her appreciation. "They also were always very reverent of nature and would comment on clouds and spiders … and different animals we would see in our backyard," she said.
Initially, Myers planned to do something else for a living. She trekked across the country to Marymount Manhattan College in New York to study psychology and pursue acting. However, she realized that biology was her true calling and transferred, right before the start of her senior year, to Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif.
After graduating from Humboldt in 2013, Myers joined Teach for America, the nonprofit teaching organization, which placed her in Milwaukee. Myers was teaching for six months when a friend recommended the center as a place where she could educate others. She started volunteering there in June 2014 and became a full-time employee last August.
"I just fell in love with the people who work here," she said. "Everyone is very excited about the work that they do and really wants to share their enthusiasm and knowledge for the outdoors."
In addition to educating children, Myers’ work involves conducting population surveys of native Milwaukee species. This means picking up snakes with her bare hands and spending long hours fully accounting for the number of bats in the Menomonee Valley.
Myers hopes to eventually run her own research projects. Mike Larson, her friend and co-educator, can easily envision her in that role.
"I could totally see her heading something up, striking out on her own, starting a new initiative; something like that," Larson said. "I can see her taking on a project, doing something out of the ordinary and running with it and doing a great job."
Myers enjoys living in Harambee, which is near the center. She spoke excitedly about the "hippie-ish environmental vibes" that characterize the neighborhood. She also cited the food, book and beer cooperatives located there as sources of vitality, adding that Harambee is "very diverse, and that makes me feel more comfortable being myself."
Myers values the freedom to be herself and sees the outdoors as a means to that end. If she could get across only one message to her students, it would be to get out more.
"Go have fun outside," she said. "Enjoy the beauty of nature."