Visitor Services & Environmental education: Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge

Olivia Barragan Velasquez

Hello Everyone,

My name is Olivia Barragan Velasquez! I am happy to announce that I just completed my very first week as an intern at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Marion, IL. I am originally from Washington State but moved to Illinois about 4 years ago. I ended up returning to college and received my Bachelor’s degree in Outdoor Recreation with a minor in Environmental Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Here is my story:


My family was the first Hispanic family to move to the small town of Forks, WA. I grew up in a small trailer park with my grandma, aunts, uncles, and all of their kids as neighbors. I vividly remember playing after school with all of my cousins and each day was incredible.

My mother, recently divorced, had joined a fairly strict religion, and as I grew I slowly separated from the fun, loving family that I grew up with. I became immersed in religion. I had to be the best, I had to be perfect. But at the same time, I could never reach perfection. I was never good enough. I became depressed and my mother recommended therapy. Odd because my family never talks about mental health. Ever. It’s always, “Pray and God will help you.” So I decided to take a leap of faith and get baptized. I was 16.

I had a little sister, Eliza, and my mother remarried and had my little brother, Izael. My sister and I were best friends, and when I was 13 when my brother was born. So we had a special bond. We wrestled, we fought, we raced. You know, sibling things. I was the oldest. I was the example.

So when I was excommunicated at the age of 18, my parents kicked me out. Because I had “set a bad example”. And “things would be different if I didn’t have siblings that could follow my example”. This was just my immediate family.

I was not ready for the world. I was raised to preach, not have opinions, to get married, to be submissive. So, I couch surfed for a year after that, moving to different cities, trying to attend community college. But I was in a bad place. I ended up moving in with my aunt and uncle and their kids until I got back on my feet. After lots of therapy and time, I got a job, I moved out, I carried lots of anger, and made many mistakes during my early 20’s. I had to learn how to trust, how to love myself, and how to not only live to survive.


As I got back on my feet I met a man who I will never forget. Andrew. He opened my eyes to the world of the outdoors. He took me on my first backpacking trip. He took me on my first snow hiking trip. He took me to my first time through the Midwest to drop off our belongings at his parent’s house. He took me on my first trip to see the east coast. He took me on my very first long-distance hike of 2200 miles. My first time through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Until the weather got bad and had to come back the next year to do Vermont, New Hampshire, and finally, Maine. Together, we went back to college and finished our degrees. We have gone our separate ways now. He is an outdoor adventure leader and instructor.

I went in the same direction but quickly learned that it’s not for me. So I followed a path that I was interested in called Environmental Education.

Environmental Education

I took a class called Fundamentals of Environmental Education. This is the first time I felt so passionate about a subject. I loved learning. I loved watching people learn. I took several courses to become a better interpreter. I am a Certified Interpretive Guide, I am a Wilderness First Responder, a Behavioral First Responder, and have taken awareness courses for Leave No Trace, Project Learning Tree, and Project WILD.

But those are all just certifications and titles.

I tried putting them to use and I did a great job only if I saw it, practiced it, and led it. But when I was asked to lead, without watching someone else do it as an example, I froze. I couldn’t think critically, I couldn’t think creatively. Everything that I wanted people to learn, I couldn’t teach. I felt like a failure. So I stopped leading groups. I stayed in the back and followed.


Before graduating college, I did my internship at Giant City State Park where I met the most incredibly passionate interpreter named Jennifer. I wanted to be her. In all of her essence, and glory. But I had to learn that I had to find my own style of teaching, and my own topic to be passionate about. Hers was wildflowers. She taught me so much about the different and amazing wildflowers that grow in the park.

After that, I graduated and started working at Cache River State Natural Area with site interpreter Molie. She showed me all of the resources she uses to learn about wetland biodiversity. I was hooked. I read all the time. I caught and tagged Monarchs in my spare time. I became familiar with all of the hiking available. All of the wildflowers, all of the snakes, and turtles, and grasses.

And now I’m here. At Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. I still sometimes feel like I don’t deserve to be here. Everyone is incredible, they are all interested in similar things as I am. I don’t feel alone even though I have no family here. I am alone, but I am not lonely. I am surrounded by amazing people that I look up to. Who work in fields that I want to shadow, like Fire Management, Bio Technicians, and Wildlife Management. I want to learn it all. I want to try to work in these fields so I can find the one I am made for or not. Maybe I’ll constantly be moving positions because I love learning about new things, but my life will never be boring. I won’t let it.

This is Me

I write a lot. I give out too much information. I am passionate about everything. I have endured a lot in my past from poverty, to prejudice, to mental health. ThoughI know this is the right direction. All thanks to Environment for the Americas.

-Proud Intern at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge for the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Olivia Barragan Velasquez

1 Comment
  • Alex B
    Posted at 01:15h, 20 January

    Keep it up. Life has it’s ups and downs, but it sounds like your trending only higher with time. Look forward to following your victories at Crab Orchard!