Entertaining Educator Kari Riddell

In her role with Halifax-based Clean Foundation, Kari Riddell specializes in reaching children in grades primary through three with messages of waste reduction, litter abatement, air quality issues, and water conservation. Assisted by puppets, Riddell uses theatrics to spread her environmental messages — to the great delight of her audience.

Riddell loves working with kids, and gets a huge amount of pleasure from the role she was able to create with the support of her colleagues. By the end of each show the kids can be heard exclaiming their love and asking her to come back. This work carries strong messages about important issues, but avoids preaching. “There’s so much joy in experiencing the little bit of magic I bring to the schools with each presentation,” she says, “It is a lovely outcome.”

We asked Riddell about her work, and other important role — that of mom to four and six year old daughters.

How did you get into doing this work?

Well, I never saw myself working for an environmental organization, but I’m really thankful that my personal connections, actions, and decisions led me to an interview with Clean back in 2005. What I do now is based on the education I received while running waste diversion programs for Clean for three years, and I needed that time to grow and develop the passion for what I present now to thousands of kids across Nova Scotia.

The approach that I take with children comes from my own learning experiences. As a child I struggled with reading and comprehension, so I’ve developed a program that reaches different learning styles. I was really ready to start using my theatrical studies again, as I have a bachelor of fine arts in dramatic arts. I was also missing working with kids, and wanted to do that instead of re-educating stubborn adults. Children can be better listeners, so that’s where I decided to put my focus.

Why is this work important?

Environmental education has always been important, and my work is about building empathy for the natural world, which is crucial for the health of our province and beyond. We need to invest in children now, so that when it becomes time for them to make decisions in their work or own lives, they’ll naturally select things that are balanced and healthy. The work is also important because I’m giving teachers the tools to put an environmental lens on every subject, so that nature isn’t just one unit or one topic only for scientific discussion, but rather a base for everything that we do.

How does doing this work make you feel?

It is a very joyful job, and I feel pretty lucky to do what I do.

Do your kids have any concept of what you do for a living?

Yes. They understand that I work with puppets, so they think I’m pretty cool because of that. My oldest daughter has seen me doing my show at her school twice, so she knows what it is all about. My younger daughter always says the rhymes that come with my show and talk about things like not littering, and those messages have worn off on her, but she doesn’t fully understand what I do just yet.

How can we approach these issues with our own children?

Part of our approach at Clean is that we don’t want to overwhelm kids and give them R-rated information that makes them want to bury their heads in the warmth of the popcorn. We simply want to build this love of nature, and that’s really the most basic thing. Talk to your kids about what’s around you. Start identifying plants in your backyard, talk about how many different kinds of trees there are on your street. Make it local, and make it personal for them. Let them feel connected to what’s around them and that will create a very important base for when they are older. They’ll have feelings about nature that they’ll always be able to relate back to.

How do you manage to balance your work with being a mom?

I’ve been working part-time since having my children. That gives me the time to enjoy doing what I do, and focus in on that, and for the rest of the day I’m mom and I get to spend that precious time with my kids. I wanted that while they were young, as I feel that it is a really important time to be with them. I feel like I’ve sacrificed a bit of my work in order to give more to my kids, but it has given me that balance and allowed me to love both of those jobs.

What’s the hardest thing about what you do?

I’m overflowing with ideas, but I don’t always have the budget to make those ideas come to life.

What do you think that you have in common with other moms?

Wanting to have a bit more energy. You put so much of yourself into your work and into your kids, then you have plans to do all these things at the end of the day when your kids go to bed, but you end up on the couch and those things don’t happen. I think I share that with a lot of moms, you’re hoping on that little boost of energy to get through. But, at the end of the week it doesn’t matter much that some of those little things didn’t happen. You have to give yourself that time to rest and relax, because your body needs it.

How did having kids change how you feel about your work?

It became more important. You see the light in their eyes and what they hope to have, and I think my work will contribute to that in terms of creating healthy communities, a healthy environment, and healthy attitudes among the kids they’re growing up with.

I also see my job as being a break from my family at times. I get to work and set that aside to do this thing that I really love, and is a creative outlet for me.

How do you think other moms can find purpose in their lives?

I think it is as simple as to live and work for the benefit of others. My father taught me that. He was constantly looking for ways to connect people to each other, and to the right opportunities, jobs, experiences, and he never asked for anything in return. It gave him great joy to see other people succeed, and it became his legacy.

As a parent we have this amazing gift that we can work to connect our children to people and experiences that will leave a long lasting impression and shape them as human beings. We can’t always choose our work, some of us have to take jobs that are just there and available, but we can choose to be that employee who is supportive of other employees, or has a good sense of humor, or suggests starting a fund in their office to support a charity. There are lots of ways that you can contribute to the well being of others. As a mom, you’re always giving, but for work you have to think about how you can make it that way in that other part of your life too.

What other moms do you admire?

First and foremost I admire my own mother for her patience and her trust in us (I have 2 brothers). I also admire her for her very brave return to the work force after spending 15 years at home. She knew she had more to give and she found a way to do that while still being a wonderful mother. She continues to shine today because of that decision. I also admire mothers who are honest about their struggles. That’s how we learn to cope, by sharing experiences.

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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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