By Jim Hagerty
Besides the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois is void of a traditional national park. That hasn’t stopped an Algonquin, Ill., girl from becoming the face of the U.S. National Park Service.
Even in the midst of her seventh-grade studies and cheerleading, Aida Frey, 13, has a unique hobby: she visits national parks. In fact, she’s visited 164 in the last three years and has no plans to stop.
“I visited Effigy Mounds three years ago,” Aida said. “The very nice ranger there asked me if I wanted to do a Junior Ranger book.”
Through the Junior Ranger program, Frey obtains activity books and earns a badge or patch for each one she completes. She has a choice between obtaining the books through mail or online and earning badges off-site. After her visit to Effigy Mounds, she adopted a rule: she only completes books she obtains in person.
“At the time, I didn’t know much about national parks,” she said. “But, I looked at the book and got very interested in it. It’s much better to be there.”
During the past three years, Aida has pinned more than 200 badges and patches on a vest that’s now almost more than she can carry. More than 300 souvenir pins are also on the 20-pound vest.
“It’s pretty heavy,” she said. “I have a sash, too, because there’s not a lot of room left on the vest.”
According to officials, the U.S. National Park Service sees about 280,000 recreational visitors each year. More than 800,000 kids participate in the Junior Ranger program.
With an annual budget of around $3 million, the service manages 84 million acres, including national monuments, seashores and museums. For Aida, stepping foot on every one is her ultimate goal, but she keeps things in perspective.
“Some of the parks are hard for us to get to — like the Hawaii or Guam,” she said. “So, we may not get to those, but when I grow up, I plan to see them.”
Meantime, Aida is doing plenty stateside. Between being featured in a national parks promotional video and scheduling various return visits to parks, she’s inspiring a generation that is, by some accounts, lost in a world of electronic and other distractions. For many kids her age — those born in the Information Age — things are often measured by the flicker of a screen. There isn’t a virtual experience a desktop, tablet or smartphone cannot create. News is broken on Facebook and Twitter before a word is breathed by newspapers, radio or TV stations. Hit singles debut online before their albums are even finished. Fame is conceptual, a construct to sway the impressionable.
Finding a place in such melange has been simple for Aida. Her quest isn’t about her. She’s raising awareness about the natural landscape that has been spared from man’s industrial advances. Theodore Roosevelt built it, and it’s Aida’s generation that will continue to maintain it.
“I like to talk to other kids because I want them to see how important the parks are,” Aida said. “They can learn about the parks and spend time with their families.”
Aida’s appearance in a video produced by the staff at Richmond Battlefield is helping spread her message. The clip has caught the attention of park rangers across the country and national parks officials in Washington, D.C.
“We know Aida,” said Julia Washburn, associate director for interpretation, education and volunteers with the U.S. National Parks Service. “She’s been a super junior ranger. The next generation is becoming more energetic and interested in national parks and the environment, and Aida is a great example of that. There are others like her out there, but very few.”
Aida’s parents, Shawn and Norma Frey, formerly of Belvidere, Ill., say they will continue on her journey as far as their daughter is willing to go.
“The only way I can describe her is that she’s a ‘good kid’,” Shawn Frey said. “We are so lucky because there are so many kids her age who are out doing drugs and falling into a bad crowd. And, I know there’s been a lot of role models over the years. Some have told kids things like, ‘Be like Mike.’ How about, ‘Hey, be like Aida?’”
Aside from those who recognize Aida from the Richmond Battlefield video, the Freys also caught up with National Parks Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, one of Aida’s biggest influences.
“I was blown away,” she said of the meeting. “He is such an enthusiastic person. He motivated me to keep going and not let anyone stop me. That really helped me a lot.”
While it may be difficult to predict where she will go from Algonquin, Ill., Aida says her future jobs are nailed down: park superintendent or director of the U.S. National Parks Service. That may be in order in the next couple of decades. For now, Aida plans to visit more national parks. She’s also hoping to finally meet one person she’s yet to run into on her journey: Harry Styles from One Direction.
The Rock River Times will keep up with Aida in future stories, as she continues her travels to our national parks.
From the May 7-13, 2014, issue