In their element: Riverside Nature Center's education coordinator shares knowledge with community

Hannah Grover
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Donna Thatcher, the education coordinator at Riverside Nature Center, can tell you which plants bring out red highlights in brunette hair — globe mallow — and which ones make black highlights stand out — horse weed.

She can tell people where to look for a goshawk nest or how to identify a song sparrow.

But, still, Thatcher doesn't claim to be an expert on all things nature. Instead, she said she enjoys her job at the Nature Center in Animas Park because it lets her keep learning and observing plants and animals in new ways.

Bart Wilsey, director of the Farmington Museum system, said Thatcher "lives and breathes everything about the Nature Center."

"She is the perfect person for that position," said Wilsey, who has worked with Thatcher for nearly 16 years.

Thatcher's wide range of knowledge — her resume includes stints with the Peace Corps, Girl Scouts and REI — is what led the museum system to hire her in 1999, Wilsey said.

In 1961, Thatcher was a senior at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., specializing in ethnobotany — the study of how humans use plants — when President John F. Kennedy mentioned forming a program that would send educated Americans to other countries to provide aid.

Thatcher wrote the president a letter, encouraging him to create the program.

Shortly afterward, she received a response asking her to apply for the newly formed Peace Corps. She ended up serving in the Philippines as part of one of the first Peace Corps groups, arriving at the island country in 1962.

"We were teaching elementary school science and English as a second language in a rather remote school district," Thatcher said.

Because science wasn't part of the curriculum at the time, she also educated the companion teacher she taught with.

She said one of the biggest challenges was teaching abstract concepts, like electricity, particularly because the village was not connected to a power grid.

While in the Philippines, Thatcher found the career she wanted to pursue: scouting. After her time in the Peace Corps, she accepted a job with the Girl Scouts on the Navajo Nation.

She worked with Girl Scouts throughout the tribe for more than 20 years, retiring to take care of her ailing parents. Thatcher later worked part-time at an independent bookstore in Albuquerque and later at REI, a sports outfitter store. She stayed with REI for a decade before moving to Farmington to work for the city.

As the Nature Center's education coordinator, Thatcher has taught visitors about the environment and the local area for 15 years.

During the school year, she can often be found leading school groups on tours, and in the summer, she hosts activities like Poetry Picnics and Wildlife Wednesdays. Every Tuesday, she takes a group of birders on a walk through Animas and Berg parks. On Saturdays, she offers different activities, like Xeriscape garden tours.

And even when she doesn't have a planned activity, Thatcher is often at the Nature Center.

One day last week, Thatcher, who was fittingly wearing a tan vest with embroidered animals, greeted visitors to the center and let the children feed ducks outside the building. She keeps bags of dried corn at the center's counter, and several ducks are now tame enough to eat directly from children's hands.

One flock that lived at Willet's Ditch has since relocated to the Nature Center. Thatcher believes the three, large ducks in the flock are hybrids between wild mallards and domestic ducks and are too large to fly well.

"They must have heard from the other mallards that this was a good place," Thatcher joked.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times as well as general news. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.