Behind the Parks: Meet Carrie, Outreach Naturalist for Senior Programs

Carrie Keller
Outreach Naturalist for Senior Programs

Hometown and background

I come from Reynoldsburg and went to school there, first at Herbert Mills Elementary and then graduating from Reynoldsburg High School. When I was about 18 months old we moved from our first house to a different house, and my mom still lives there, some 50 years later. I am the youngest of three kids. My brother Jeff is the eldest, followed by my sister Traci. We lived about a mile away from Blacklick Woods and I went there often, usually on my own. Even at the age of 8 or 9 I would go there on my bike, mostly on weekends. That’s how I first developed an interest in bird watching. I made my own field guide, when I was about 9 years old, drawing the birds I had seen at Blacklick Woods. I was destined to become a naturalist, although my memory of those days is that I wanted to become a zoo keeper when I grew up. My favorite book, back then, was called Animals A to Z.

My mom was a girl scout leader and my love of nature was enhanced by my years in the girl scouts, age 6 to 12. My dad was also a nature lover and helped to foster my love for the outdoors as well. I got good grades in high school, but those were the teenage years, where other interests come as if from nowhere and I set my animal interests aside for a while. I knew I wanted to go to college, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. So, I went to The Ohio State University as an “undecided major.” In my sophomore year I finally decided on my major, and I eventually graduated from OSU in December 1993 with a degree in History. I also have a minor in Physical Anthropology, the study of primates, and I enjoyed those classes more than my major. I even spoke to my advisor about changing my major, in my last year of study, but I was advised I was too close to the end to be changing my major then.

Carrie and her family on her graduation day from Reynoldsburg High School. Left to right: Brother Jeff, Carrie’s mom, Carrie in her academic gown, Sister Traci, and Carrie’s dad.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after leaving college. I waited tables for a while, but then took a major plunge and went off to Europe on a touring and working adventure. A friend and former roommate at college had done something similar, in Ireland, but I went first to Scotland. My parents were a little worried about me, but they offered me their full support for my adventure. I bought a return ticket for five-and-a-half months later. It was spring 1994 and I had never flown before. I flew from Columbus to Boston, and then had a 7-hour flight to Glasgow, a big, industrial city, where the natives spoke in a thick and barely understandable accent. From there I went to Edinburgh, where I met another traveler, a girl from Austin, Texas. She and her friend from home traveled with me for part of my tour. I bought what’s called a Eurail Pass, which allowed me to travel by rail across Europe. I went to London, Paris, Munich, Vienna, Salzburg, Interlocken (in Switzerland), Prague and finally Florence, Rome and Venice in Italy.

Funds began to run low, so I went back to Scotland and saw a job board advertising for servers at a hotel in the Scottish Highlands. For the next three months I worked and lived-in at The Holly Tree Hotel on the banks of Loch Linnhe, just north of a little village called Kentallen. That was a beautiful location, but by the end I was itching to return home. I had started dating Justin (my now husband for nearly 25 years) shortly before I left for Europe, and was anxious to get back to him. We had met while working at Gottlieb’s in Grandview, Justin a cook and me waiting tables.

Carrie outside the Palace of Westminster in London on her European adventure tour, and (right) The Holly Tree Hotel, where Carrie worked for three months on the same tour, seen from the opposite shore of Loch Linnhe in the Scottish Highlands.

Both my parents are from West Virginia, and I was riding with them to the state for a family visit when I had a kind of epiphany — I didn’t want to wait tables for the rest of my life! I decided to go back to OSU to study wildlife management. After a few quarters, fate took a hand. Because of staff changes at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, the naturalist intern was promoted to part-time naturalist, and they readvertised the intern position. I had missed the original advertisement, but I interviewed strongly for the position and I got it. That was the start for me with Metro Parks, a seasonal naturalist intern at Battelle Darby Creek, in June 1997. It was only for a few months, but I came back as an intern the following year, and in October 1998 I was promoted to a permanent position, as part-time naturalist at the same park.

To help make ends meet, I was also working two other jobs at the same time – as an “as needed” naturalist at Elam Environmental Center at Camp Ken-Jockety, which is a girl scout camp and environmental education center near to Prairie Oaks Metro Park. I worked there nearly every week, all year round, but working hours were never guaranteed. I also worked three days a week at a day care as an afternoon teacher, from 3 to 6pm. At the same time, and for about five years, I volunteered at the Ohio Wildlife Center, assisting vets in caring for animals and teaching some programs offsite at schools and libraries. So overall I was working a LOT of hours.

I finally obtained a full-time naturalist position at Metro Parks in spring 2000, becoming a naturalist at Blacklick Woods Metro Park. It allowed me to quit my other jobs. I was a naturalist at Blacklick Woods for eight years, and then moved to my present position, the then newly-created post of Outreach Naturalist for Senior Programs.

Justin and Carrie on the day they got engaged, and Carrie with Henry, when he was less than 2 years old.

What I do at Metro Parks

I do lots of public programs at all the parks, for my target audience of people aged 50 and over. I also present lots of requested programs at senior living facilities, assisted living and memory care facilities, church groups and libraries — basically anywhere where people over 50 are likely to gather. I enjoy the mix of working at both the parks and at outside facilities. I have a long list of available programs that seniors can request, and at the parks I get to do many seasonal-related programs, such as wildflower walks, fall leaves, the return of the eagles to their nests, and swamp programs at Blacklick Woods when the amphibians are breeding. These days, I also try to bring in some outside special presenters for non-traditional programs, such as drum circle programs, programs with artists working in different media such as watercolors or ink printing, and Qigong, an ancient Chinese system of exercises designed to elevate energy and harmonize body, mind and spirit to improve health and well-being.

Carrie in her office at Metro Parks Headquarters.

I’m also heavily involved with Metro Parks’ Summer Camps, and have been ever since I started my current role in 2008. I help to plan the camp programs, help set up the online registration system, register people for camps, prepare the camp counselor training sessions and help supervise, and even sometimes fill-in for counselors, as the summer camps progress from June through early August. I also help out at Metro Parks special events, such as Fall Fest at Slate Run.

Another major undertaking that I organize and manage are our annual Senior Camps. Initially our Senior Camps took place in the fall, but in recent years we’ve added a spring Senior Camp to the mix. We usually do four days of sessions at Blacklick Woods at the spring Senior Camp, and eight or nine days of sessions in the autumn, over a three-week period, also at Blacklick Woods. We get up to 700 people participating in our annual Senior Camps. It’s one of the most highly-anticipated events of my Metro Parks year. I enjoy the opportunity to spend a greater amount of time with seniors at these sessions, which typically last for three-and-a-half hours, rather than the 60-minute sessions of a more traditional program. I should also mention another highly-anticipated event that I participate in each year – the annual Grandcamp and Me session at summer camp. This one-week event at Blendon Woods always attracts our maximum participation of 40 people, a mixture of grandparents and their 6- to 12-year-old grandkids. It’s always very enjoyable.

What I love most about my job

I get terrific feedback from the age-group of people who come to my programs. They always seem very appreciative of what I offer for them and I get many return visitors, some of whom I can now call regulars. Over the years I’ve developed a number of good, friendly relationships with several of these regulars. I also have some favorite programs. I particularly enjoy presenting programs about reptiles and amphibians. I bring my old friends to these programs, from Sharon Woods’ group of education animals — an American toad and a black rat snake. Although our snake might have an identity crisis on his hands (if he had hands), as ODNR have declared that there is no such species as the black rat snake, which must henceforth be designated as a gray rat snake, or an eastern rat snake. Thankfully, our laidback snake doesn’t seem to mind!

My favorite Metro Parks activity

I really enjoy hiking at the parks, and especially at the south-eastern parks. The Ridge Trail at Chestnut Ridge is possibly my favorite trail. It’s always fairly quiet there and I enjoy the steep elevation changes on the trail. Where it joins the Homesite Trail, at the high point of its rise, there is an old, now derelict homestead to be seen, where some unusual and fascinating plants are still growing strong. These include various grapevines, some holly trees, bamboos, and some very large yucca plants. Of the other south-eastern parks, I particularly enjoy walking at Pickerington Ponds during waterfowl migration, and eagles now nest at the park too. I like the hilly trails at Slate Run, and the forest wildflowers are spectacular in spring.

If I could go anywhere in the world and time and money were not a concern…

I’d love to spend some time in Alaska, to really get to know the magnificent landscape of mountains and glaciers, and see its wildlife, such as bears, moose, caribou and wolves, as well as its sea creatures, like orcas, humpback whales and gray whales. It would make a great family trip for me and my husband Justin, plus our son Henry. I’d also love to visit Europe again and take Justin and Henry with me to see the sights I enjoyed before, and visit lots of new places there too.

Fun facts about me and my family

1. A close family group! Next May, Justin and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. It’s 30 years since we first started dating. Our son Henry was born in 2004 and has just turned 19. A few months ago he started his college life by studying Criminal Justice at the University of Toledo.

Justin and Carrie Keller with their son Henry on campus recently at The University of Toledo.

Already, we are missing Henry’s daily presence in our lives. It is perhaps going to delay the achievement of a family goal, which is that all three of us want to visit all 50 of the states in the US. So far, we’re a little above half way to that goal. We try to visit a few different states each year. This year we have visited Mississippi and Alabama. Last year we checked off New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont, and the year before that it was Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming. These trips have blessed us with some of our fondest memories as a family. The Badlands of South Dakota made a fabulous impression on us. We’d never been that far out west before. The landscape is really beautiful, with its deep canyons, towering rock spires and expansive mixed-grass prairies, where you can see bison and prairie dogs. A quite different, but equally memorable impression was made by our visit to Boston, where we went off into the Atlantic on a whale watch boat and followed the city’s Freedom Trail, with lots of history reminders marked out on the ground for you to read on the ground as you walk.

Carrie, Henry and Justin at The Badlands in South Dakota | Carrie at the Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine | Justin and Henry at the end of the Freedom Trail in Boston

Henry’s personal favorite, however, might be from all of 10 years ago, when we took him to Walt Disney World in Florida. It was a great trip for Justin and me too. I think that 9 is the perfect age to take a kid to Disney World. They’re old enough to manage all the extensive walking that’s needed, and without complaining, as their minds are attuned to seeing the next magical experience along the way.

Carrie, Justin and Henry at Disney World in Florida.

2. We love dogs! We’ve adopted several dogs over the years from rescue shelters. Every one has been a different breed, and most of them have been large dogs. A couple of them have been very old, when we got them, but we felt very strongly that they deserved a good, loving home for the last part of their lives. These two older dogs were Shaq, a border-collie and Pyrenees mix, who weighed about 90 pounds, and Dodger, whose breed we couldn’t be sure of, although he looked like a Labrador retriever and pitbull mix. About six months ago, we took in a much younger dog, Layla, who is a full-breed Pyrenees and weighs about 85 pounds. She’s just turned a year old. Our first dog was Jack, a Labrador retriever, followed by Gracie, a mixed-breed medium-size dog. At that time, we also had two cats.

Shaq and Gracie enjoy lounging about at home on a couch.
The Kellers in their yard at home, with Dodger and Gracie.

3. My extended family! Curiously and coincidently, both my brother Jeff and sister Traci ended up living in Atlanta, so I don’t see them and their families as often as I’d like, but we love getting together when we can. I see my mom often as she lives only 10 minutes away. Sadly, my dad passed away over five years ago. On Justin’s side, I have several more family members. Justin’s parents divorced and remarried, so I have quite an extended family. We try to get together when we can during the holidays. Henry seems to have enjoyed having had six grandparents, and multiple aunts, uncles and cousins!

Carrie, Justin and Henry at the Outer Banks in North Carolina with Carrie’s mom and dad, plus her brother and sister, with their spouses and kids.
The Keller extended family: Carrie, Justin and Henry with Justin’s dad’s side of the family (left) and with Justin’s mom’s side of the family at Ocean Isle, North Carolina (right).

My favorite food and dessert

My favorite foods are chicken enchiladas and pizza, especially a Hawaiian pizza, which has toppings of pineapple, tomato sauce, cheese and either ham or bacon. Ironically, Hawaiian pizzas have only the tiniest connection with the state of Hawaii. It was created by a chef at a restaurant in Ontario, Canada in 1962, who named it a Hawaiian pizza simply because the pineapple chunks he used on that first pizza had been canned in Hawaii. Although I sometimes make my own chicken enchiladas, my favorite ones are served at La Fogata, in Pickerington. Donatos makes the best Hawaiian pizza I know. They add almonds and cinnamon to the toppings.

For dessert, I love coconut cream pie, so that’s up at the top of my list. My mom also made wonderful Christmas cookies, including pecan balls and 7-layer cookies, which I also make myself. They are very easy to make, just mix together butter, crushed graham crackers, coconut, pecans, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips and evaporated milk, throw it in a pan and bake in the oven.

My favorite entertainment

I’ve been to a lot of concerts, especially rock, country and Americana, which is a mix of rock and folk music. Some of my favorite shows have been The Jayhawks, an Americana-style band who I saw at The Stuart Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio; The Rolling Stones, who I saw at Ohio Stadium back in the 1990s, and also U2, who I saw a few years back at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, when they were doing a second coming of their Joshua Tree tour. Music concerts are a great escape, for me, from the trials and troubles that everyone experiences in their everyday lives.

I also read a lot. I’ve read many books by Carl Hiaasen, which are satirical, environmental mysteries, all based in Florida, and numerous Janet Evanovich novels featuring her female bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum.

I love movies too, Some of my favorites include Shawshank Redemption, which has an underlying element of friendship that I greatly enjoyed; The Silver-Linings Playbook, which stars Bradley Cooper as a character tackling bi-polar disorder, and Crazy, Stupid Love, a very funny romantic comedy starring Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore. Justin, Henry and I share a similar kind of humor and like a lot of the same goofy comedy films, such as Dodgeball, Step Brothers, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Spinal Tap. That same sense of humor leads to us sending each other goofy memes, including ones about the Cleveland Browns, such as ‘We Almost Always Almost Win,’ and we have our own set of sarcastic inside jokes, some of them founded on movie quotes, such as “Sorry your mom blew up, Ricky,” from the movie Better Off Dead. It’s our ironic throwaway line if something happens to go wrong at home.

The Kellers have devised their own Christmas tradition, a particular pose expressing the insouciance of one and the exasperation of the two others. Carrie describes it as “Just us being silly!”

If I had just 60 seconds to share why I love working at Metro Parks, I’d say…

I love the opportunity I have every day to teach people about nature and to share my passion for the natural world with them.

27 thoughts on “Behind the Parks: Meet Carrie, Outreach Naturalist for Senior Programs

  1. This is a great bio! I am sorry that your college advisor discouraged you from changing your major because you were close to graduation, and I am happy for you that you were able to eventually get back to school to study wildlife management.

  2. Really enjoyed reading your life story. Can you tell me, are there any transportation services for seniors who may have issues driving to some of the parks?

    1. Hello Deborah, Thanks for your question. We’re sorry to say we aren’t aware of any transportation services of the kind you mention.

    2. I’m another one with issues about driving. I can reach Batelle Darby Creek and, in a pinch, Prairie Oaks or Scioto Audobon, but that’s about it.

  3. We met Carrie at a s’more cookout. She was very welcoming and pleasant and we really enjoyed our time at the event. Interesting reading about Carrie’s life..

    1. I enjoyed meeting you at the s’mores cookout James! Thank you so much for the kind remarks.

  4. Hi Carrie,

    Great Bio! I had no idea you did so much! It was great being a neighbor while it lasted. I miss Gracie especially lol. Tell Henry and Justin I said hi.

    My bf Jim and I love to hike at the parks, so send me an itinerary of what you are doing since we are seniors and I’ll see you soon!

    1. Hi Cathy! We miss having you as a neighbor! We miss Gracie so very much too. Take care!

  5. Wow Carrie, I’ve known you for years and didn’t know any of this about you. It was fun reading your bio and hopefully someday soon I’ll join you on a program. I recently met a “birder” and have been going out almost everyday since!!! IT’s been fun but sometimes a little disruptive with my own schedule!!!

    1. Hi Cheryl! It’s great to hear from you. I do hope to see you at a program some time soon. Enjoy birding!

  6. Hi Carrie,
    I came to a number of park tours, special events and the 50+ camps, sometimes with my friend Renee. I try to follow you regularly on Facebook but I haven’t seen anything about the camps, as I would love to get reconnected.
    I enjoyed your bio, but most of all your caring diligence that you always showed everyone at the events that I attended.
    I will continue to try and follow your posts and I will also try to revisit the schedule on the Metro Parks website.
    Thanks for all you do!

    1. Hi Darlene! It is great to hear from you. Thank you so much for the kind remarks. I hope to see you at a program some time soon!

  7. Loved getting to know you better, Carrie! You have a keen mind for remembering all those details and for wording them in a concise, logical, and interesting way. 😍 Just one thing: the cookie recipe you mentioned takes sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated). 🤣 See you next summer: with FOUR grandkids in tow! 😯

  8. Lovely bio Miz Keller. I have such great memories of working with you when I was the “Geezer Intern” after you were promoted to permanent naturalist at BDC. You taught me a lot when I was there and I’ve continued to enjoy you all these years…not to mention the joy of aggravating Tim Taylor! Your conscientiousness, big heart & equally big brain make you a force to be reckoned with. The Metro Parks are lucky to have such a high quality person on their staff & I am lucky to call you my friend.

    1. Thank you so much for the very, very kind words, Elise. It was a joy to work with you all those years ago. I am truly grateful for our friendship.

  9. Thanks for sharing this information. Would you be available to chat? I do Marketing & Advertising for a Senior Center in West Jefferson Ohio. Would love to know about all the programs available to Seniors.
    Thanks
    Linda

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