“Nature is unpredictable and interesting, and being immersed in nature often allows us space to be unpredictable and interesting ourselves.” This quote exemplifies Timmy Okung’s approach to her work with Rochester Ecology Partners. Timmy aims to provide nature based respite, allowing kids a safe space to relax, be challenged, be seen, and learn about themselves and their surroundings. Nature based respite is all about being in a space that grows and changes, and this can contribute deep meaning to the ways that we also grow and change.
Award Winning Educator
Recently, Timmy has been awarded a scholarship to attend the upcoming Inside Out Conference, presented by the Children & Nature Network. The conference, held in the Rocky Mountain National Park, brings together leaders from a broad range of disciplines. Participants will explore best strategies and practices for creating inclusive and equitable outdoor experiences, which aligns precisely with Timmy’s goals as an educator. I talked to Timmy about what the experience of applying for and receiving the scholarship was like. They stated, “I’m good at what I do, and I know that I’m passionate about what I do, and I know that my reputation precedes itself. I earned recognition by being black, being queer, and working hard out here. Even so, it was a little nerve-racking for me, but not really, because I know this is what I should be doing. I know [the conference] is where I need to be and this has my name all over it. That’s a very comforting feeling, so I move with a lot of confidence now.”
Devoted to Creating a Stronger and Healthier Rochester
Timmy Okung (they/them) is a proud Rochestarian and member of the Rochester Ecology Partners team. Timmy is devoted to creating a stronger and healthier Rochester through nature and education, and is making swift moves in our community to achieve those goals. Timmy was raised in the 19th Ward and attended School 58 during their middle and high school years, and credit both their mother for choosing School 58 due to the nature based learning the school had in place, but also to their teacher Chris Widmaier, who provided the modeling that allowed Timmy to realize the power and importance of child-centered and nature-based learning.
Although Timmy is a relative newcomer to the field, they are extremely excited and optimistic about the work they are doing in our community. They can see the difference in the demeanors of students engaged in nature based programs, and the kids respond rapidly to Timmy’s gentle and focused care and attention. A recent GRASA (Greater Rochester After School Alliance) training and other networking opportunities have proven immediately beneficial, and have strengthened Timmy’s resolve that this is the work they were meant to do. There are layers of meaning for Timmy in this work, mostly involved with finding one’s own purpose but also acknowledging that purpose can come from the examples you are given. Timmy recalls their time at 58 School as a critical moment of realization. “I remember going through the cattails and it was such an out of body experience, especially to realize I’ve been so close to those things and never touched them. Seeing a natural waterfall, just feeling like water run over your feet… those are things that I remember experiencing for the first time and I remember how I felt and I know that’s 100% why [I do this work]. It breaks my heart that I didn’t have these experiences until I was 10, 11, 12. That is why I’m so passionate about working with young children, because they deserve these experiences as young as possible so that it is ingrained in them. That way, it just becomes a part of them and not some Great Awakening that they have to have later in life.”
Timmy had a second Great Awakening on January 1st, 2022. They were working as an assistant manager at a bank and while seemingly enjoying all the outward measures of success, realized that their quality of life was at rock bottom. They had kept in touch with their teacher, Chris Widmaier, and he encouraged Timmy to attend the popular “First Day Hike” that Rochester Ecology Partners organizes. During the hike Timmy struck up a conversation with fellow hiker Bryan Yanish. Timmy listened intently to his story of leaving behind an unfulfilling day job to pursue his passion and finding himself happier than ever before as a published author of the children’s series, “Robot and Shark”. Brian’s story had a profound impact on Timmy’s life. They left the hike with a new life goal in mind: to pursue their creative purpose as doggedly as they had previously pursued external measures of success. Timmy says, “It was like a movie. I never went back to work. I immediately began volunteering for Rochester Ecology Partners and eventually did my first Neighborhood Nature summer program at the SWAN center. I never looked back. I knew I had found my ‘why’.”
Like all good work, there are inevitably challenges to overcome. When I asked Timmy what their opinion was on their most pressing professional obstacles, their answer was immediate and resounding. “I don’t care what this makes me sound like, but we need more black and brown people in leadership roles. The white savior complex is real and damaging, and it prevents true progress from taking place.” Timmy is very clear about how accessibility and lack of representation are the most crippling problems they encounter.
The second most pressing issue is lack of funding. While Timmy is proud of their ability to lead a phenomenal program with almost no resources, the scarcity is pervasive in all city programming and in certain critical areas can be limiting and even oppressive. Timmy says, “If I had a van I’d be unstoppable. And food- real, healthy, good food for the kids. Meals and wheels, that’s all I need!” As far as the future is concerned, Timmy sees themselves perhaps piloting a nature based respite program of their own, providing radical empathy and healing opportunities wherever they are needed. The seeds have been sown, and with the care of Timmy and people like them, Rochester has a very green future. As Timmy stated, “Seeing beauty in your community equates to seeing beauty in yourself, it’s a two way street.” With someone like Timmy driving, the views are going to be awesome.
Support Timmy’s Work
Timmy and the Rochester Ecology Partners team are able to do what we do thanks to the support of our community. You can help us grow with a donation. Any contribution you make will fund Timmy’s trip to the Inside Out Conference, the Neighborhood Nature program they manage and the further development of their capacity to lead nature based learning and community building efforts with Rochester Ecology Partners. If you would like to contribute in other ways please reach out
Jessica DiSalvo interviewed Timmy and wrote this article about their work. We appreciate their contribution.