“Look at this!” she shouted, scooping up a dragonfly off the surface of the water with her net to show the kids gathered behind her. “Woah,” replied her 7-year-old daughter, Charlotte. The group she was showing this beautiful dragonfly to is called “Nature Nuts”—which gathers some of her friends and their kids and is modeled on the family nature club her parents created for her and her sisters. My girls and I are lucky to be some of these “Nuts.” Olivia Griset is a teacher, a leader, a mother—and a kid at heart when she’s in nature. “I feel best when I am outside,” she says. She has taken her personal passion and applied it to the benefit of students across the state of Maine as the Executive Director of the Maine Environmental Education Association (MEEA).
Olivia grew up in a place very different from Maine—a small town in Utah along the Wastach Front Mountain Range. The lush green Maine landscape of the trails right outside her door in Brunswick, Maine, is a completely different ecosystem. In particular, she says, “The water in Maine is just amazing. All the lakes, rivers, ponds, and oceans are just beautiful.” Nonetheless, her start in nature was in this small mountain town out West. “We didn’t even have a TV or anything like that at our house. Instead, even though we had a small yard, my parents let it grow wild with trees and beautiful plants and encouraged us to play outside all the time. So, I became introduced to the joys of nature from a young age.”
Watching how much fun Olivia and her twin sisters had playing outside, their parents decided to create a family nature club. “Every week we would meet on Monday evenings and learn about nature or do a fun activity or service project. Then, in the summers, they created a summer camp just for me and my sisters to learn outdoor skills and have adventures. Having loving adults in my life to share nature with is one reason I am really passionate about outdoor learning and environmental education.”
After studying fisheries and wildlife biology at Utah State University, Olivia found her way to Maine to work on a trail crew in the White Mountains. “That summer I fell in love with Maine and also with an amazing guy who was determined to live in Maine someday,” she says of her now-husband, Todd. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she made the move. She started out doing fisheries research at the University of Southern Maine (USM), but quickly realized her passion for teaching while mentoring high school students in her lab. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to become a science educator,” she says. After getting her master’s degree in Education at USM, she taught science at Lisbon High School. “I truly loved my time teaching there and loved the other educators and students I got to work with,” she says of teaching courses like field ecology and marine biology. It was during that time that she first learned about MEEA.
MEEA is an organization that brings together people and organizations from across the state to build environmental awareness and promote opportunities for outdoor learning. Their mission fit Olivia’s passions, so she joined the board as a young teacher. “At that time, a lot of research was coming out to show the positive impacts of outdoor learning on students, like increased attention span and healthier minds and bodies,” she says. As part of the group, she had opportunities to connect with other like minds in Maine and to be part of a network of energized people.
Olivia took a break from teaching to start a family. But she didn’t take a break from outdoor education. She volunteered to teach outdoor lessons at the Bath YMCA preschool and formed the nature playgroup “Nature Nuts.” “One of my favorite memories is the first time we all cross-country skied together,“ she says. “There is literally nothing cuter than a little line of colorful little skiers shuffling along through the woods behind my house–who are half the time down in the snow. I think we probably only made it a half mile until we turned around, but it was really a breakthrough that everyone was on skis together! Watching their friendships, confidence, and independence grow over the years has been a highlight for me,” she adds.
A few years later, when MEEA decided to hire their first Executive Director, it felt like just the right move for Olivia. “I was honored to be selected to lead this incredible organization,” she says. “I feel so fortunate to work with brilliant folks from all across Maine and also to serve in leadership at the national level representing Maine’s work. The women I get to work with are truly rising leaders in advancing justice and equity in the environmental and conservation sector.” In the last several years, Olivia’s passion has broadened in a new direction: bringing outdoor experiences to students who are otherwise unlikely to have those types of opportunities. “Seeing how my girls respond to nature made me want every child to have these types of experiences, not just kids who are born into families with that type of privilege to teach and learn outside. I am motivated in my work to build equitable access to nature-based education for every child.” This commitment led her to cofound a network called the Maine Environmental Changemakers.
Changemakers supports youth in Maine working where social justice and environment intersect. It is a statewide, intergenerational youth-led network that connects diverse young Mainers between the ages of 15 and 30. The network provides trainings, mentoring, and other resources to the students involved. “Many of our students identify as coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, rural underserved counties, and/or identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC),” says Olivia. “They inspire me to question my own biases and assumptions, and to build structures to support educators and individuals who are building environmental literacy and connecting people to nature in Maine,” she says. This work has been particularly challenging, but poignant during the current initiatives and imperatives toward racial equality.
MEEA’s work has also been challenged by the pandemic. This time has been a difficult one for educators. And yet, there are new opportunities for environmental education since more people are seeking the outdoors as a safe way to learn and explore. “We are working with the Department of Education and an amazing team of folks both in Maine and at the National level to advance the conversation about how outdoor learning in public schools can be a healthy COVID-19 response strategy,” says Olivia. MEEA was also on the design team of the new Community Learning for ME website where over 70 non-profits from around the state post professional learning opportunities and free virtual events for teachers, families, and students. And, as a part of the Nature Based Education Consortium, they are coordinating teacher trainings on outdoor teaching and learning so that teachers feel more comfortable teaching outside.
Bringing nature to those around her is what drives Olivia. It brings joy to others, as well as to her. “It is truly a dream to be able to do a job where I get to meet and work with so many incredible people,” she says. “There is literally nothing more hopeful or inspiring then being able to do this work.”