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How not to retire when you retire - join the Master Naturalists

Vickie Hansen knew that when she retired, she didn’t want to “retire.”

She had heard the stories. A person retired, didn’t have a plan on what to do with the time, and quickly wasted away. And she knew the science. Continued mental stimulation and problem solving are good for maintaining thinking skills. Maintaining social engagement is associated with staving off chronic disease, and staying physically active, even if it's just walking, can lead to both better health and sharper thinking skills.

So, having heard about the Master Gardener program offered by University of Illinois Extension, Hansen thought this might be a good way to stay engaged after she left her paying job. She attended an event where Extension had a booth and went over to learn more about the program. At the booth, she talked with a volunteer, but he wasn’t a Master Gardener. He was a Master Naturalist and Hansen quickly realized that what she was really interested in was nature and not gardening specifically and the Master Naturalist program would be the perfect fit.

A foundation in nature

Looking back, she connects her love of nature to the foundation her family gave her through their numerous trips and hikes on family vacations and a next-door neighbor. This neighbor would share her knowledge about the more than the human world with the neighborhood kids, young Vickie included. Taking “field trips” with her neighbor in her VW bus to explore the local flora and fauna. Which proves you don’t have to be a teacher or relative to make a difference in a child’s life. Both her family and the neighbor provided the “spark” for a lifetime of interest.

Joining the Master Naturalists

Monarch chrysalis clinging to carved limestone building column
Monarch chrysalis clinging to the limestone exterior of the Aledo, Illinois courthouse. Photo by Vickie Hansen

In 2017, Hansen took the Master Naturalist training in Rock Island County in northern Illinois. Once finished, she helped create a pollinator pocket at the courthouse in Aledo, Ill. And while it took a bit of time to get the milkweed established, she knew it was a success with the pollinators and the public when the security guard from the courthouse pointed out a tiny chrysalis clinging to the limestone bricks of the building. The butterflies had found a new nursery, a place to grow and thrive. But just as important, the humans who worked there and visited there were given the gift of joy and awe. 

During this time, the town was hit with Emerald Ash Borer and numerous ash trees were cut down. Understanding the need for a healthy tree population in town, Hansen started working with Trees Forever and community members to conduct a tree survey.

"We plant trees, not for ourselves, but for others that come after us," Hansen says.

She added to her own knowledge by taking the Urban Tree Identification course offered by Illinois Extension. Growing in her understanding of connections found between the natural and man-made worlds. ,

Recently, Hansen moved from Aledo to rural McLean County, where she hopes to continue her work supporting tree health and diversity and creating pollinator pockets. She looks forward to learning about her new place and getting to know a new group of Master Naturalists who share her passion for the environment.

"I'm excited to visit the sites Master Naturalist here, go to volunteer," Hansen says. "I love to hike, so hopefully some of those are good places to do that as well."

Proving once again that when you retire, you don’t really need to “retire."

Learn more about becoming a Master Naturalist, opportunities in your area, volunteer requirements, and more at


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Wendy Ferguson coordinates the Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs in Henderson, Knox, McDonough, and Warren Counties. Wendy earned a BS in Environmental Studies from Eureka College and an MS in Environmental Studies with an emphasis on writing and communication from Green Mountain College. She is interested in facilitating a deeper connection to place for community members through nature journaling and education. She is also an author for the Naturalist Notebook blog.

ABOUT THE BLOG Naturalist News is a blog by University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalist staff and volunteers who bring you stories highlighting the individuals, places, wildlife and plants that make this state amazing. Join us each week to learn something new, be inspired and become connected to your own community by recognizing the amazing ways we are all intertwined.