A Story County Conservation naturalist, who is a resident of Polk City, happens to be just the second, or maybe third, Iowan in the past 50 years (of record keeping) to receive the National Association for Interpretation’s (NAI) award as a Master Frontline Interpreter.

Heather Hucka, 36, has been selected as the 2017 recipient of this very prestigious award, which is presented to a conservation worker who has demonstrated a mastery of interpretive techniques, program development and design of creative projects. She will receive the award next week at the NAI’s National Workshop in Spokane, Wash., and she will also be honored by Story County at a special open house on Monday, Nov. 20, at the Conservation Center at McFarland Park.

“I have never received an individual award before,” said Hucka, “and for it to be a national award was very overwhelming and humbling. I feel more than honored.” Receiving the award, for which she was nominated by fellow Iowa naturalist Victoria De Vos of Plymouth County Conservation, has helped Hucka see how much she has grown in her profession. She has been in the conservation field for 13 years and has worked in a permanent position for Story County Conservation since 2006.

Her job for Story County, she explained, involves facilitating connections with nature and teaching about natural resources to children (primarily pre-K through sixth grade), special groups and families. She does this through indoor programs and outdoor experiences. She also leads outdoor recreation trips in both Iowa and out of state for youth and adults, cares for education animals, manages the semester-long practicum program, works with summer naturalist staff and leads nature camps.

She said it’s hard to say exactly what she loves most about her job, because she enjoys various aspects of her work. “I like being outside, I like doing something different every day, I like teaching different ages and I like facilitating connections…seeing the light bulb click…,” she said.

“What I love, I think, is who I do it with. The staff at Story County Conservation is like a second family. I would not be the naturalist I am without them. And I would not enjoy my job near as much without them. I am very blessed to work on a large team of environmental education staff (four naturalists, one outreach coordinator, one environmental education coordinator), along with 14 other amazing co-workers,” she said.

She loves that Story County has given her the perfect place for growth and creativity. She loves having the opportunity to mentor future educators through the county’s practicum program. She loves the summer naturalist program, and she enjoys guest speaking at Iowa State University. “I like feeling like I have an impact on the Story County Community,” she adds.

Hucka has lived in Polk City since July of 2007. It’s where she and her husband, Ben, who works for the Iowa DNR, are raising their two daughters, Autumn, 7, and Avery, 5. The girls attend North Polk West Elementary. Polk City, being so close to Saylorville Lake, is the perfect home base for a family where all members thrive in the outdoors.

Hucka hopes that people will come to her open house on Nov. 20, from 4:30-6:30 p.m., at the Conservation Center at McFarland Park near Ames. It will be a great opportunity for her, she said, to give out thank-yous and hugs, probably shed a few tears and, of course — eat cake.

Receiving the honor she has received isn’t over just because it has been given to her and celebrated. Now, she knows, she has to live up to it. “I will continue to do the best I can, sharing my enthusiasm and passion for the outdoors with everyone I meet.”

The National Association for Interpretation (NAI) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit professional organization dedicated to advancing the profession of heritage interpretation, currently serving about 5,000 members in the United States, Canada and over 30 other nations. Individual members include those who work at parks, museums, nature centers, zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums, historical and cultural sites, commercial tour companies and theme parks. Commercial and institutional members include those who provide services to the heritage interpretation industry.