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Senior finds purpose in state park internship

July 16, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. — Early on a July morning, Tom Richter looks out over the Mississinewa Lake beach.

the senior poses with a tree he planted

Sitting on his Gator utility vehicle, the Indiana University Kokomo senior points to the dark line visible on the dam. Just across the lake there’s evidence of record-setting flooding in July 2015, when reservoir levels reached more than 40 feet above normal. He also notes the hundreds of dead trees and bare places along the shoreline.

As an intern with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Richter is doing his part in the flood recovery process by planting and maintaining about 200 trees, destined to replace those lost.

He referenced a Greek proverb that says “a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in” to explain why this work is meaningful.

“It doesn’t feel like a job to me,” Richter said. “Planting trees makes a difference. I like that it’s working towards the greater good. This is something positive I can do for our planet.”

For nearly a month, Richter push mowed grass as high as his chest to clear the land designated for the tree nursery. Then, he dug holes to place the white oak and Kentucky coffee bean saplings. If all goes well, someday these trees will be transplanted to anchor the reservoir’s banks to prevent erosion and to provide shade at campsites.

He’s also found a potential career, as he’s talked to DNR staff about working for the department after he graduates in May. It’s a far cry from his original career plan when he enrolled, which was to be a chiropractor.

“I’ve always liked camping,” he said, adding his mother always believed he was better suited to outdoor work than the medical field.

He admits he had never been to the reservoir before his internship, but now it’s one of his favorite places.

“It’s huge, I had no clue how large it was,” he said, noting that it covers 1,850 acres including the water, over five counties. “I wish I had known about it before now. It’s an awesome park, with all kinds of amenities and trails, and it’s only a half hour from where I live.”

No day is ever the same. In addition to planting the trees for the only state park-run nursery in Indiana, he’s photographed and measured the length and width of 470 camping sites to update the park’s reservation website with accurate dimensions.

He’s helped children weigh and measure their catches at a fishing tournament, and directed traffic for hundreds of people attending the annual fireworks show on the lake. He’s even cleaned the bathrooms that line the perimeter of the 1,600 acre park — a job that takes all day, the Tipton resident added.

The best days, however, are when park staff come get him to show him something interesting, like a bald eagle’s nest. He’s inspired by the pride he’s seen for the work being done in the park.

“I’m one of the few people working here who didn’t grow up playing here,” he said. “It’s more than just a job for everyone. For a lot of the guys here, it’s their passion, which is my favorite part.”

With minors in environmental science and sustainability, Richter already had an interest in conservation. This internship transformed that interest into a desire to make it his life’s work. 

“My dream job would be to advocate for state and national parks, and towards putting our money for their preservation,” he said. “They are underfunded, and deserve more than what they get.”

Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.

Last updated: 07/16/2019