JC Parks and Rec naturalist Deegan named Tennessee conservation educator of the year

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – When David Arapakos saw a nomination form for Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s conservation educator of the year, his thoughts immediately turned to Johnson City Parks and Rec Nature Program Coordinator Connie Deegan.

“Our kids were always very excited to go to her nature camps,” Arapakos said of his three children’s eagerness to learn from Deegan.

“She has that true passion and it’s infectious, not only to the kids but to the other adults that she’s around.”

Connie Deegan teaches about nature any day of the week, in any kind of weather.

Arapakos convinced the judges that Deegan’s passion — and what she does with it — were enough to earn her the prestigious award for 2020.

“It’s not just her knowledge base, but the excitement that keeps the kids wanting to come back,” Arapakos said. “She keeps them engaged, they’re catching snakes, looking for bugs, it’s never-ending. So the stimulation she provides not only for the kids but the community that participates with her is just unparalleled.”

A naturalist and herpetologist (snake expert), Deegan said the honor — announced Wednesday — was a happy surprise.

“It was awesome,” she said.

For the past decade, Deegan has led a variety of classes and camps geared towards nature and wildlife. Buffalo Mountain, Winged Deer Park, Jacob’s Nature Park at Sinking Creek and other city locations are the stage on which she familiarizes people of all ages with the abundant natural resources in this area.

She said her duties break into three main areas — year-round one-off weekend and day programs, work inside the parks to keep the natural areas maintained, and the half-dozen weeklong summer day camps that max out at “28 little humans” (ages 7-12).

“I’m just so motivated by the natural world,” Deegan said. And in the past five years or so, she said she’s seen a change in people’s curiosity.

Connie Deegan’s deepest area of expertise is herpetology (the study of snakes).

“People are getting a sense that it truly is all connected and if we don’t do things differently the places we love may be at risk,” Deegan said. “Education is the way to achieve that end.”

Deegan doesn’t limit her educational role to kids camps. She teaches courses at East Tennessee State University, and gets ETSU students and other volunteers out into parks to complete trail maintenance and other projects.

“I constantly try to innovate, and I have some incredible volunteers and people I work with that give me opportunities to think outside the box,” she said.

Deegan keeps broadening her own knowledge base, producing a weekly educational piece on the Parks and Rec Facebook page called “Naturally Yours.”

“I’m adding more and more stuff, but that gives me an opportunity to learn,” she said. “I love how things in the natural world are connected and work together.”

She’s been at it long enough locally to see people like Arapakos’s children move beyond the traditional nature camper age categories — with many of them staying connected to her.

“A lot of times they’ll continue on and work with me as a junior counselor,” Deegan said. “I have one counselor who’s leaving for college this year and going into environmental education.”

That Deegan has such influence is no surprise to Arapakos.

“She has helped foster and create the excitement and desire and passion to learn about the outdoor environment,” he said. “My kids had it — she helped magnify it.

“I think also for kids who don’t have that exposure she helps instill that in them, not only in the classes that she provides but in the weekend activities she does that are very accessible to the community.”

A camper with an answer at a pre-COVID Connie Deegan nature camp.

Arapakos said those quarter-mile jaunts provide easy introductions even to the uninitiated.

“Not only for the kids but also for the parents,” he said. “Her ultimate goal because she really cares, not because it’s her job, is to get people to have that same passion for their local environment.”

He knows he’s not the only community member who recognizes what a treasure Johnson City has in Deegan. Those who have worked with her are all very aware, he said.

“Does the community at large value her as much as they should? I hope so.”

Spots remain for just two of Deegan’s summer camps — Eye Spy Nature (June 7-11) and Pollination Nation (June 28-July 2).

Online registration is available under the “Register for a Program or Event” button near the top of the Parks and Rec page on the city’s website:

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