There are 22 state parks scattered across the state of Louisiana. Some residents of the Pelican State might be familiar with the historic Bogue Chitto State Park tucked inside Washington Parish, but few can say they’ve experienced everything the 1,786-acre park has to offer. Take everything Bogue Chitto has to offer and add supervising 20 middle school kids to the list. Things get a little more interesting don’t they?
For Baton Rouge native Erin Sullivan, that interest became a lifetime love. Sullivan, who graduated from LSU in 2004, always knew the great outdoors was where she belonged. It wasn’t until she saw the effect the great outdoors could have on an inner city child that she realized her love was in fact a calling.
Sullivan worked with Louisiana State Parks as a park ranger before becoming an outdoor outreach mentor. Turning down higher paying jobs that she was more than qualified for was a tough decision, but she said she didn’t want to spend the majority of her working life testing nature in a laboratory.
“I made the decision — I work for mother earth and not the dollar,” Sullivan said.
As an outdoor outreach mentor, Sullivan explores the outdoors with inner city children, teaching them everything from how to pitch a tent to canoeing. She currently works with a nonprofit organization called Everybody Plays Sports Foundation. The foundation is currently partnered with THRIVE Academy, a free college preparatory boarding school in Baton Rouge that serves at-risk youth from the East Baton Rouge Parish.
Sullivan and her team of mentors at Everybody Plays show the children at THRIVE a side of Louisiana they might not know existed. She said working as an outdoors outreach mentor has taught her that there’s nothing quite like watching a child experience the outdoors for the first time.
“When they’re out there it’s a heart-warming feeling,” Sullivan said. “There’s been times where I had to turn my head because I had a few tears coming out. Just seeing a kid go ‘wow this is beautiful’ or to hear the words ‘man I’ve never seen this many stars’ is an amazing.”
The children at THRIVE get all the equipment they need from Muddy Water Paddle Company, a stand-up paddleboard company that eats, sleeps and breathes paddle boarding. Sullivan has been a perfect fit with Muddy Water, doubling as a project manager for them while still balancing her position with Everybody Plays as outdoor outreach mentor.
Sullivan said Muddy Water has given her an opportunity to connect with children she works with on an even deeper level.
“Seeing a kid on the water go from afraid to courageous enough to try it brings a wave of peace over their face,” Sullivan said. “When they’re doing something like paddling and they realize they’re not going to fall down. No matter what kind of kid, if it’s their first encounter with the outdoors and it’s positive, they walk away a more confident and competent person.”
The Muddy Water team travels the south during the summer putting together competitive paddleboard races from Florida to Texas. Sullivan’s goal is to one day get some of her children from Everybody Plays to compete in a race this summer.
The co-founder of Muddy Water, Walker Higgins said Sullivan has had a huge impact on the company since joining the team eight months ago.
“People like being around her,” Higgins said. “She’s easy to work with and not only does she enjoy what she’s doing but she’s good at it. She just has that infectious personality that’s great for any company.”
Follow C.J. Rucker on Twitter @Ruckmatic.
Photo courtesy of Erin Sullivan.