GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Interpretive Ranger Graciela Avila wanted to be either a black cat or a teacher when she grew up. Since becoming a cat was out of the question, Avila settled on teaching.
"I kind of always knew I would be a teacher," said Avila, education specialist for Grand Canyon National Park's Resource Education branch.
As an education specialists Avila helps create the junior ranger program booklets for the North and South Rims and Phantom Ranch. Every year Avila creates over 34,700 junior ranger booklets to be distributed throughout the park.
"My group of co-workers specifically does family programs geared toward younger kids," she said.
Avila started teaching after receiving an undergraduate degree in sociology and decided to teach in outdoor education helping to foster her love of nature.
She discovered nature and teaching can go hand in hand and spent time working for non-profit groups as a naturalist instructor and seasonally at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
"I actually visited there (Mesa Verde), and went on a ranger tour and fell in love with it," she said.
Although Avila found fulfillment working as an interpretive ranger at Mesa Verde, she missed teaching and discovered she could go further in her career in the park if she had a master's degree. She enrolled at Northern Arizona University (NAU) to earn a masters degree in elementary education with the hope it would lead to a position at Grand Canyon National Park.
"I called up the park there (Grand Canyon National Park) and said, 'I know that you hire students, I really want to work in the education branch,'" she said. "It kind of came together really nicely. Once I finished my degree I was offered an internship position, so I could work in the education branch, finish my degree and at the end of that was basically promised a permanent job with the park service."
After Avila completed her education she found her dream job did not disappoint her.
"It was like - I can teach, I can be outdoors and that's everything I want," she said.
One of the reasons Avila loves her job is the chance to work with children. Being a shy child from Los Angeles, she knows what its like to want to be surrounded by more than a concrete jungle.
Born and raised in Temple City, a suburb of Los Angeles into a family of five children, Avila's dad, an immigrant from Mexico, worked as a graphic artist, sketching cartoons for L.A. county schools. Avila's mom worked as a public health nurse. Both parents grew up in east L.A. and raised their children primarily in the city.
Avila's passion for the outdoors stemmed from two things: going on camp outs with the Campfire Girls and longing for the outdoors after spending much of her young life in the hospital.
"I was born with something called club foot and some other health issues," Avila said. "I was also a campfire girl when I was younger and getting out there with the Campfire Girls was my first exposure to being outside and camping out. We had like the super old tents that were really complicated to put up and it was just fun and it was away from being stuck inside of a hospital room. I think that really helped push me into this."
Born with two club feet, Avila's doctors were able to correct the growth of her feet, however her left foot required five reconstructive surgeries.
"Starting at one year old there are these certain time segments when you're growing the most," Avila said. "So like one year olds - if they do it (surgeries) then they'll try and get it to grow a certain way and then five years old and the last one when I was 12."
After spending so much time in and out of hospitals, Avila was ready to escape with the Campfire Girls to the outdoors.
"We did a lot of beach camping, being close to Los Angeles, but we also did trips to the zoo and learning different skills," Avila said. "It was a really fun group but I think being there, especially camping just - well, I was a super shy kid, I didn't talk to a lot of other kids and when we went camping the other girls would be like, 'Wow, you're talking so much, we never see you this animated or excited.' I think it was just being outside and being really comfortable that I opened up."
Identifying with the outdoors, nature and finding her comfort zone helped Avila determine her future career path. Today, working with kids continues to help Avila grow and learn and have fun.
"If I'm feeling yucky or sick or didn't get enough sleep - if I get up in front of group of kids all that just disappears and I'm glad and I have fun," she said.
In addition to creating and working with the junior ranger program, Avila spends time going on field trips, visiting classrooms and working with families.
"I like to think about it as four different seasons," Avila said. "In the fall we do field trip programs, in the winter we do distance learning programs and we also do classroom ranger visits, spring we go back to doing field trips and summer we work with family groups."
Going on classroom visits is a highlight for Avila - especially the inner city schools, where she feels she directly relates to many students.
"I hope that inspires them to come here when they're older," Avila said. "To find a way to get up here or any national park and just have fun. I never expected to be a park ranger. No one in my family would have and they still think I'm slightly crazy."
In the future Avila said she would like to take her skills and use them in a supervising role,
"I think of myself as teacher first and then ranger," she said. "I'm lucky my job allows me to do that and I see myself supervising more people someday. I have thought about taking all that I have learned here and starting it up in a new park."
Avila said that while nothing is in the pipeline now she is allowed to dream. Who knows, maybe she will achieve her dream of becoming a black cat.