Kelly Ussia is the St. Johns County Parks and Recreation naturalist. In that role, she leads several diverse and interesting outdoor activities in various parts of the county.
Did you do a lot of things outdoors when you were young?
As much as you can in Rochester, New York, without freezing to death. [Laughs] So, I grew up on the Erie Canal, and we spent a lot of time outside. … When it was nice, we were outside. When it was not so nice, we still went outside; we just had to put on, like, seven layers of clothes. So, when I turned 18, I only looked at colleges in Florida. I ended up going to Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.
Tell me about your career path.
I had gotten a job at Marineland. And then I got a part-time job at the beaches over the summertime for sea turtle nesting season. That led me to working with Parks and Rec. They needed somebody to help with kayak trips. Once I got in with Parks and Rec, I was just able to grow that into the full-time position, which is the parks naturalist position.
Tell me about you do on your job.
I love my job. No two days are the same, which is wonderful. I spend a lot of time in our amazing parks and natural areas, taking people kayaking and on beach walks. We have nature photography classes. We do a lot of fishing programs. … Pretty much, if it’s outside and it’s recreation that’s not on a field or on a court, we’re doing it.
What do you like best about what you do?
I’m going to say two things. One, personally, I really love just being outside and sharing my love of the outdoors with people. I have so many useless facts that if I didn’t have this job, I would have no real appropriate venue to share them. [Laughs]
I think the second thing that came to fruition after the pandemic was seeing the impact that our programs have. We started working with the VA on veteran-exclusive programming. Not that the general public wasn’t appreciative of the programs we’re doing, but you can just see and feel the difference we’re making with the veterans in the community through the veterans-only program, and they’ve expressed that. That means the world to me.
Tell me about this arrangement with Veterans Affairs.
We just started it in January. We basically do one fishing and one kayaking program a month.
One of the VA’s recreational therapists comes, as well. She refers patients in her system as well as when we open it up to just any general veteran.
So, it’s a good joint program for us to be able to reach that specific community while also potentially giving them new skills, being able to connect them with other veterans in the area — and it’s a nice informal setting for them to get a feel for what the VA can potentially do to benefit them.
How can veterans get involved in the program?
They can call or email me. My office line is 904-209-0335.
The other option, if they don’t want to reach out to me directly is to just go to our Parks and Recreation page on the county website. There’s a big banner with a picture. Below that is a paragraph with two different links. The first one will take you to a link of the catalogue of our current program offerings. And that will give you a list of everything that we’ve got on the books for the next month or two. And the other link will take you to sign up for our newsletter. That goes out once or twice a month and has all of our upcoming programming.
How would the general public learn more about your programs?
Same exact process.
We really run the gamut. We’ve got summer camps. We do family fishing clinics. We also do some history-themed beach walks that are typically during the day when the kids are in school. We do the same thing with some fishing clinics while the kids are in school.
We do sunset beach walks and some guided trail hikes. We’re going to be doing some geocaching programs.
And then, always we encourage folks who have families that want to get involved in service to come out for any of our clean-ups. We have waterway cleanups and beach cleanups. We try to do each of those twice a year.
What do you like about living in this area?
I like being able to go downtown (St. Augustine) and go to a nice restaurant and hang out and listen to music. But I also love the fact that, equidistant driving in the opposite direction, I can be at McCullough Creek Preserve or Nocatee Preserve and kind of get away from everything.
Do you have a message for readers?
I feel like a lot of folks who are moving here just don’t even know all the cool things that we have to offer. That’s why signing up for that newsletter is so important. Every month, you’ll get new updates, and we’re always doing different stuff, depending on the season.
What’s coming up?
We have a new program, and that’s pretty big, that we’re launching with two community partners, and we’re going to do a pretty big waterway cleanup the Wednesday after Labor Day. It’s on our website.
I’m super-excited about it. We’re going to try to clean the northern part of the Matanzas River between ourselves, the Matanzas Riverkeeper and Sol Margin Fishing & Conservation Foundation.
Your job is so recreation-oriented, how do you like to spend your free time?
To be honest, I watch a lot of TV. [Laughs] I enjoy spending time with family and just watching a good show.
I do plan really big, epic vacations. My husband and I have a mission to see every national park. We’ve seen five so far this year.
We do plan really cool outdoor adventures. I just don’t get out as much as people probably think I do, outside of the job, just because I’m doing that all day.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here