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City parks worker has always been drawn to great outdoors

Jennifer Sprouse • Sep 24, 2013 at 10:00 AM

For some people, finding their calling has proven to be a bit of process, but for Connie Deegan, nature program coordinator for Johnson City Parks and Recreation, it’s always been about the outdoors.

“I think if you took a room full of people, you’d find that some of them are very good with computers, some of them are mechanical, some people are artistic (and) some people are athletic,” Deegan said. “I’ve always always been into the outside.”

Moving around a lot as a child, she said can remember being outside a lot, exploring nature just in her backyard, so when it came time for college she chose two majors that would help her explore her passion further.

“I went to school at the University of Rhode Island,” Deegan said. “I had a double major (in) natural resources and education. It really was a no-brainer. I’m somewhat knowledgeable about plants and geology, but I always liked the animal end of outside and ecosystems, how forests work. That (college) offered me … a good base to learn stuff, as well as with the education part, to be able to turn around and teach if I ever could be so lucky.”

After graduation, she decided to take a non-traditional, yet adventuresome, path, instead of entering the workforce right away.

“I really wanted to travel. I thought it was the most convenient time,” Deegan said. “That summer I wrote three things down on a list: I wanted to do an offshore sailboat delivery, I wanted to get my … license to drive a tractor-trailer … and I wanted to learn how to juggle. I did the first two and I never learned how to juggle.”

Setting sail on a boat from Morehead, N.C., to Antigua, she said she had only planned to stay the winter, but ended up picking up another boat and landing in the British Virgin Islands, where she worked as a bartender in Anegada.

“It was really cool,” she said. “I had never really been out of the country up to that point.”

Another thing Deegan added to her bucket list early on was the desire to live in Ireland.

“I’m Irish. I wanted to live in Ireland,” she said. “I actually got a job working as a horse trainer (at a farm in Skibbereen in County Cork). When I was in Ireland, I basically had four jobs because the horse training position was only for the summer and then I ended up picking apples, and then I worked at a deli and then I worked at this … four-star hotel. That was the coolest.”

Coming back to the states, Deegan said she worked with her sister in Denver doing stained glass work.

“I learned as much as I could. I took all the classes. I became an instructor,” she said. “That’s what I did for a long time and then my sister got married, (and) sold the business. I could have bought the business, and though I liked it, I really knew that I wanted to be doing this (working as a nature program coordinator).”

Once back east, Deegan landed a job as the head naturalist at Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, Conn.

“I worked there for probably six to seven years and I did a lot of educational programming,” she said. “We brought programs into the schools. The schools came to us. It was a great facility. I took care of all of the animals and coordinated all of the volunteers and … really did a lot of instruction. I really felt like my introduction with my first paying position was … very high quality.”

Moving to Johnson City in 2007 with her daughter, Hartney, Deegan said the move from Connecticut to Tennessee was a bit of a risk, as she had no job and no friends in the area.

She said she looked around for jobs in her field in local park services, including the parks and recreation departmenet, but finding that unsuccessful, she said she worked in a local call center and was then hired on as a contractor with the TVA.

“I did some field work and I worked with water quality and that was pretty cool,” Deegan said. “As a contractor, you’re pretty expendable and one day they said ‘all the contractors are gone.’ ”

She then searched locally for places needing a programmer, a job she had a lot of experience in, and landed a part-time job with the Johnson City Seniors’ Center.

“I was over health and education. The cool thing about that is education is really anything,” Deegan said. “I just relied on my background as a naturalist and I would do things as specific as aquatic insects and how they relate to the health of your system. I pulled from my strengths and it seemed to work.”

When the nature program coordinator position opened up, she said she immediately put her name in the hat, and was hired in June 2012.

Deegan’s role at Parks and Recreation involves running the summer educational camps, tending to the trails in the parks in Johnson City, as well as planning and executing community-oriented nature programs.

“When I moved here, things were very, very unsure,” she said. “I’ve been in the workforce where I’ve been extremely unhappy and I’ve been in the workforce where I’ve been deliriously happy and it’s so nice to like what you do for living. That’s where we spend most of our waking hours and it’s really nice to be really excited to go to work. I’m just really happy here and I’m thrilled to be working for Johnson City.”

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