My family fled to the states as Romanian political refugees when I was nearly 3 years old.
Starting over in the United States with no English and no possessions was extremely difficult. My dad went from being an electrical engineer for a research institute in Bucharest, Romania’s capital city, to his first U.S. job as a Kmart stock boy.
There was a family from our church that my sister sometimes babysat for, and I got to tag along. Their youngest, sweet with blond hair and blue eyes, my child’s view of the quintessential American girl, became my good friend.
One day, she and I decided to sneak out and go on an adventure. We packed a bag with peanut butter sandwiches and made our way out of the second story bathroom window. We carefully jumped from the roof to a nearby antenna and climbed down to the yard. We boldly made our way through the streets and into the local metro-park, our make believe kingdom.
We were both princesses exploring the riches of our land. While we twirled around and sang songs in different languages, our cultural differences were non-existent in that natural play space. Unfortunately, this acceptance ended when I started school.
My introduction to the U.S. school system was cold, with my kindergarten teacher referring to me only by the word “immigrant,” never by my first name. It was only during our outside recess time that I felt comfortable and free.
Needless to say, I worked hard to lose my accent and fit in. At home my parents were also trying hard, when they had time, to make sure I was raised a proper young lady, one who didn’t climb trees or whistle.
Without my parents’ approval, I remember taking off my fancy dress shoes and enjoying the barefoot climb up the backyard tree. I would spend hours reading and dreaming, curled up on a perfect-fitting branch. I never imagined that one day I would sway back and forth with the wind while 65 feet up harvesting pine cones as part of a job. Thankfully, even through the adversity of immigrant life, the outdoors remained my sanctuary. During my life, I have continued to enjoy exposure to the adventure and refuge that the outdoors offers, and this makes me want to share that experience with others.
My first internship as a naturalist just so happened to be right back at that very park I had gone exploring in with my old friend. How fitting that I was able to help others discover such a special place! My current work as a psychosocial rehabilitator continues to provide me the opportunity to share special outdoor spaces, specifically as a therapy tool.
The connections I build with people in the outdoors are ones of wonder and trust; these experiences are saving lives, including my own.
Daniella “Donna” Lorincz Drader is a leader in C&NN’s Natural Leaders Network. She is considering studying for a PhD, possibly related to youth leadership connecting people to the natural world.