We incorporated in October 2015 and held our first class January-July 2016. I'm happy to talk about it! I first heard of the master naturalist program in 2014 when David Booth (I knew him from the Gulf Coast Bird Club) had visited with Stacy Scarce the then President of the Acadiana Master Naturalists. David was interested in starting a Lake Charles chapter.
Then in 2015, I began working as an environmental educator with the City of Lake Charles, and there was a huge need for informed volunteers to help out with our two nature parks.
Initially the existing volunteer base was spread thinly among area organizations but lacked the time to devote to the cause. I remembered David's interest and ended up visiting with Stacy Scarce myself, met Tommy Hillman at the Acadiana chapters pollinator workshop, and decided to focus on building a master naturalist group in Lake Charles.
After a few months of meetings with the few environmental educators and professionals I knew (and those that they knew) we had formed a board, drafted articles of incorporation, and scheduled our workshops for the spring.
With the support of the Gulf Coast Bird Club and promotions through the city's nature parks we certified our first class in 2016.
Most of our original board members have stuck around and still heavily contribute to our chapter's growth and workshops. I was the charter president, and I could not have helped start the chapter without Robby Maxwell (founding secretary/treasurer and current board member), Tommy Hillman (charter vice president), Theresa Cross (charter and current board member), Lori McGee (charter board member), David Booth (charter and current board member), Chuck Battaglia (charter board member), Brian Sean Early (charter board member).
Our region includes Vernon, Beauregard, Allen, Calcasieu, Jefferson Davis and Cameron parishes. Our logo design speaks of our Cajun Prairie habitat!
Our origin and connection to the Acadiana chapter is the origin of our name difference compared to the other chapters in the state — Southwest Louisiana Master Naturalists instead of Louisiana Master Naturalist of Southwest Louisiana. I like to think that Southwest Louisiana's (and maybe even Acadiana's) independent streak goes back to our time as either Cajuns living off the land due to the inaccessibility of the prairies or the settlers who lived in "No Man's Land" between the Calcasieu and Sabine Rivers.
Because of our location and the strengths of our board members, our program has tended to emphasize the Cajun prairie, coastal marshes, birds, herps, freshwater ecology, and citizen science. We've thrown in other topics such as mycology and pollinators whenever we've been able to and have strived to be open to the ideas of our board and members.
Through student discounts and scholarships, we've been able to open the course to college students and recent graduates. One of our founding values is to make sure that everyone feels welcome to attend our workshops and meetings.
One of the things that I'm most proud of is our certified students stepping into leadership roles. In 2021, we have our first group of officers consisting entirely of members who became certified master naturalists through our program: Barbara Morris (president), Lori Marinovich (vice president), Clay Ardoin (treasurer), and Patty Palmer (secretary). I consider that one of several signs of our chapter's sustainability and success. (View Photo Gallery)
Arlene Cain, a member of our first class, was our newsletter editor from August 2016 (our first newsletter) until April 2021. She moved to Indiana after Hurricane Laura, and while we wish her well, we'll miss her.
Several members have been able to work with other agencies in various roles after finishing our course, from the City of Lake Charles to NRCS to the National Parks Service.