Written by Kathy Hunt for OrilliaMatters
For Samantha Vessios, capturing the beauty of the outdoors with her camera has been her “passport” to nature. Now, as the new Engagement Organizer with the Couchiching Conservancy, her passport to nature has become more meaningful.
Among other duties, Vessios is responsible for helping others get out, connect and protect nature through the organization’s popular Passport to Nature program.
After enjoying working with the Orillia Area Community Development Corp. as Office and Marketing Coordinator for seven years, Vessios’ new position combines her long-time love of nature with her organizational and creative skills.
While nature has always been the focus for Vessios’ photography, the beauty of the natural world has also inspired her other creative projects and accomplishments. She was recently awarded second prize in the 2021 Streets Alive! public art project for her “Driftin” hippie van, designed with repurposed materials and homegrown plants.
I recently sat down with Samantha to find out more about her background and her new role with the Conservancy.
How did your connection to nature begin?
I guess it really began as a kid. My dad loved to fish and would often take me with him. Then when we moved to Uptergrove, I grew up in the country on the water. I was always outside, swimming, riding my bike and exploring, although I didn’t actually have a conscious appreciation of nature back then.
That really started when I moved back to Orillia after living in Toronto. I picked up my mom’s old Minolta film camera and began to explore the local area. Photography allowed me to see nature differently. Growing up, you always just want to leave. I thought, “I gotta get out of here” and didn’t pay much attention to what was surrounding me. Once I returned home, I got lost in nature and started to appreciate the things we pass by everyday.
How has your connection with nature made an impact on your life?
Being in nature fills me with pure joy and it’s where I feel most grounded. A colourful plant, a bird’s song, chipmunks scurrying around – they all elate and excite me without fail. And it’s also given me the space to slow down and just be.
What is your role with the Couchiching Conservancy?
My title is Engagement Organizer and I’m still learning what that is! It’s a unique position. Essentially, I am getting and keeping supporters involved in our work so we can do more to protect nature. Whether someone is already working with us, or interested in volunteering, participating or supporting the work we do, it’s my job to help make that happen. Communication is, of course, a big part of this, including social media, newsletters and coordinating our Passport to Nature program.
Has your work with the Conservancy changed how you perceive and connect with nature?
The one thing that struck me right away was seeing the troubling side of nature. When I thought of nature previously, it was all positive – sunshine and butterflies. When you get into the world of nature preservation, you realize there are a lot of people fighting for something that’s going to disappear really quickly if we don’t make changes.
Although I understand climate change and have always been conscientious about my impact on the environment, I didn’t really consider just how fragile the world is. I really think we’re running out of time and we need to step up. That’s what this organization is for – to do what we can, come together and protect what’s literally closest to us. We’re not trying to solve world problems; we’re just trying to hold onto what we have right here, and ultimately it will help to solve the big picture.
Can you tell us about the Passport to Nature program?
This is the eighth year of the program. It has been so successful that it has been copied by environmental organizations throughout Canada! I think it’s great that such a small community has done something that is so far-reaching. The program is a series of events and activities at our nature reserves that introduce people to the Conservancy – why we exist and what we do. This year’s slogan is “Get Out. Connect. Protect.” It’s a great reason to be outside and enjoy nature. Not only are you connecting with nature, but with like-minded individuals too.
A committee of volunteers helps us put the program together and, thanks to our sponsors, all activities are free to attend. This year we are offering a hybrid of in-person events, virtual events and downloadable activities.
When does Passport to Nature kick off?
We’ll be launching in April. Signing up for our newsletter is the best way to be notified about when and how to get involved. This year we’ve added two new road trips: Experience the Wildlands and Experience Carden, a Family Fun Collection to download, and Walk on the Wild Side challenges for each season to help you explore our reserves.
Our first in-person event is at Scout Valley on April 23, in celebration of Earth Day (April 22). We’ll be doing a big clean-up of the property. Many people know the area as a city-owned property but it also has an easement with the Conservancy, which gives the park an added layer of protection for the future.
To sign up for the April 23 Earth Day Clean-Up or to access other activities, people can head to our website.
What are your favourite places to enjoy nature?
The Conservancy’s Grant’s Woods is beautiful in the spring, with all the trilliums, and in the fall, the Alexander Hope Smith Reserve near Washago has gorgeous colours. I recently discovered Sweetwater Farm, one of our newer public reserves, that has a beautiful creek and waterfall running through the property. I’m excited to get out and discover more of our properties – there are over a dozen with trails.
If there was only one thing you want people to know about your work with the Conservancy, what would it be?
I love the simple mission of protecting nature for present and future generations. I want people to understand how precious nature is and join us in protecting it.