What a beautiful day.
The summers can really bubble up here, and sometimes even the breeze is hot to the skin, but if you get away from the concrete bustle of the city and settle in to the quiet shade of the trees, it’s a really, really nice day.
We’re lucky in the OTA region. In the same space we work and sit at stoplights and pick up our groceries, we have big trees and lakes and solitude, too. And if we escape at just the right time, the setting can make for a lovely sunrise or sunset, complete with a frog song in the distance.
Many of us know this kind of nature. We are respectful of our South Dakota summers — biking the trails, having a picnic at the park or taking a nice breath before going inside for the night.
We are grateful, but here in our busy city, no one is as present in the outdoors as Thea Miller Ryan.
For her, it’s always a really beautiful day.
Thea is the director of The Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, a nature center affiliated with South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks. She began her work there in 1994, but the building didn’t actually open till 1997. So she spent three years helping to build the ideal outdoor education center for our region.
“This is essentially my first child,” Thea says. “My daughter was born in ’96. I was pregnant with the building longer.” She smiles.
“This is a big, huge part of me and my family.”
Thea’s voice is incredibly sweet. When she talks about her work, she speaks softly and eloquently, but there’s so much conviction and happiness there, too. She’s a positive person, despite setbacks.
Last month, the boat shed at The Outdoor Campus burned down, losing 21 kayaks, most of the canoes, one tandem kayak, 80 lifejackets and 90 paddles. It totaled over $25 thousand worth of damage, and still no clues as to what happened.
But Thea — with a generous community behind her — is prevailing.
“The support has been amazing,” Thea says. “So many cookies. You really do love us!”
As much as she loves helping kids learn to hunt and fish, she loves the arts, too, and is mindful about how the two can work together at The Outdoor Campus. “It’s a passion for me, and I bring the arts in every chance I get.”
If anything, her enthusiasm and strength is helping everyone at The Outdoor Campus to regain respect and connection with the outdoors.
“I’m just positive by nature,” Thea says. In the beginning, “that was my personal goal. Here’s what kind of person I am, and I think I could lead this building and lead a staff and lead a community into being as excited as I am.”
That’s why The Outdoor Campus will triumph. The community has been more supportive than ever, the trees are still standing, the birds are still singing and … in the end?
We still have Thea.
With her here, the backyard of Sioux Falls will continue to shine under the Midwestern sun. No matter what.
“This is where I belong,” Thea says. “I belong on the prairie.”
Youth in nature
Thea’s love for the outdoors came easy as a wide-eyed child, in a different kind of backyard while growing up in Rapid City.
“Our block had a tremendous ‘back alley’ that was hills, grass and trees,” she says. “We lived out there! Making forts, playing Animal Kingdom and rescuing neighbors from Sleestaks and Big Foot.”
Then as a young journalist, her true heart for nature emerged again, when the U.S. Forest Service approached her to work for them in public relations.
“I had no training in biology, trees or really any science,” Thea says. “I never had a science teacher who inspired me! But suddenly, I was plunged into this world where they put radio collar backpacks on turkeys, pulled bear cubs from the winter dens to weigh and measure them and put tracking collars on nuisance bears. They fought forest fires!
“It was the most amazing thing ever.” And her true journey began.
“I learned to love nature a little bit backwards. I had to learn it out of school, but what a great adventure it has been!”
Building early connections, learning from our land
The Outdoor Campus is a beautiful landscape. There’s walking trails, a pond for kayaking, canoeing and fishing, and endless opportunity to revel in outdoor adventure. Once you arrive, you’d never know you’re in the city.
“We want everybody to have some connection with the outdoors,” Thea says. “Despite the fact that this is the biggest city in South Dakota and we’re in an urban area and some kids have never even seen a cow in person, we are prairie people.”
And so The Outdoor Campus is a place to learn.
Activities include hunting and fishing, shooting a bow and arrow, Dutch oven cooking and geocaching.
“As far as seeing the kids do the activities, it’s when you see a group of kids go out and fish,” Thea says. “And you get the kid who catches their first fish for the first time ever, and the look on their face and their pride and the fear, it’s just the best thing!
“Our goal is just to give kids a hands-on experience in the outdoors.”
Thea has watched children and families grow up at The Outdoor Campus. Classes begin in Sprouts — for 3- to 4-year-olds — and continue up to teens and adults.
“We have people who have gone all the way from being sprouts to now being interns,” Thea says. “And they take what they have learned into their adulthood, and their children grow up to loving the outdoors, too. Isn’t that great?”
Thea’s own 19-year-old daughter, Maddy, was one of those kids.
“I have had many experiences growing up that not many others have, like raising baby bats that someone brought in to having pictures from my childhood of me wrapped in different exotic animal furs,” Maddy says. “The Outdoor Campus is like my second home.”
Maddy says her mom’s work can be an inspiration — for anyone in the community.
“Her passion has taught me so much about pursuing what makes me happy and loving what I do everyday. She makes me want to follow my dreams and reach for what seems like the unachievable.”
Maybe it’s in her smile or in that big ol’ embrace of the prairie or her optimism in the face of recent struggles, but Thea makes us feel that way, too.
She is like the fresh sunshine that every community needs, and sometimes when the days are heavy, nature can be enough.
Every day at The Outdoor Campus, Thea encourages her community to take a break and step outside to a place where “our imagination is all that limits us.”
If you ask Thea, today really is a beautiful day.