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A Love Letter to the Valley—and People Who Care for It

This story is by recent UMass graduate Selene Bonafini, who served as Kestrel’s first Communications Intern in spring 2024.

To those who love the Valley,

Amidst sprawling green trees, mysterious forests, and the gentle babbling streams of the Connecticut River Valley, my childhood unfolded. I spent the past two decades learning from the land, exploring new trails, and eating fresh food grown from the soil right under my feet. As a kid, I felt an inherent connection and reliance on the land. My dad used to come home with deer he hunted in our backyard and cook the meat for dinner. After dinner, I ran outside to climb a tree or build a fort to hide in, while my sister walked around the pond looking for frogs. Then, my sister and I gathered rocks, flowers, feathers, and leaves to decorate our mud pies and adorn the entryways of our fairy houses. When it got dark, we came inside and my mom brushed the dirt off my bare feet and combed my tangled hair as I watched Disney Channel.

Knowing our neighbor had a cow pasture on the other side of the rock wall bordering our property, one day, I decided to sit on the wall and watch the cows graze in the distance. After sitting for a while, one of the cows walked up to the wall and stopped to look at me before walking away again. I kept going out there and if I sat on the rock wall for long enough, at least one would walk by or stop to say hello—which honestly made me feel like modern-day Snow White. At the time, I didn’t realize just how special it was to hang out with cows in my backyard, play in the pond, and climb trees.

Selene Bonafini, UMass Amherst class of 2024, was Kestrel’s first Communications Intern.

From kindergarten to the angst of middle school and college adventures, the Valley has been my home. As a kid, the pond in my backyard was my playground. As a teenager, parks and trails were the hang-out spot (aside from the mall, of course). Now, in college, nature is where I go to find myself again.

But up until very recently, I didn’t realize all the work that goes into ensuring that kids like me had trees to climb on and clean ponds to swim in.

Nature has been one of my biggest passions for as long as I can remember. But for almost the same amount of time, the deterioration of nature has been the source of my greatest fears.

Starting college at UMass Amherst, I knew I wanted to make a difference, but I had no idea how. I decided to major in journalism, but after a couple of years of studying journalism and reporting university news, I still wasn’t satisfied that I was on the right career path. I loved reporting, writing, and talking to people, but there was always a little voice in the back of my head—that voice of fear, fear for nature, my future, and that I wouldn’t be able to do anything to change it. I could not push it away, and no amount of reporting on housing, town meetings, and community events could satisfy my need to turn fear into change.

Nature has been one of my biggest passions…but the deterioration of nature has been the source of my greatest fears.

A couple of years ago, I started taking more classes about environmental science and agriculture at UMass. I took one Natural Resource Conservation course and one project was to volunteer for an environmental cause in the area. My project group looked through the list and researched all the organizations. I found this non-profit called Kestrel Land Trust. I convinced the group to choose this one.

While volunteering, I met the Community Engagement Director, Kari Blood, who told me about the communication work she does. I thought, wait a minute… You can do communications and work for a cool non-profit? I want to do that! 

Since I was hired as an intern at Kestrel, the voice of fear in my head has been quieter. Throughout the semester, I created social media content and newsletter articles, made videos, and attended events. But what I learned and experienced was much more than gaining a few skills.

Students building a fort in the woods
Screenshot of a video showing volunteers from Hampshire College building a fort at Kestrel’s Greenberg Family Conservation Area.

In April, I joined a group of volunteers from a class at Hampshire College to create a “nature play area” at Kestrel’s Greenberg Family Conservation Area in Westhampton. I thought I would just hang around and take pictures as I had done at many events I had covered for news at my other jobs. But this was completely different.

I got to chat with other college students and learn why they decided to take a class focused on trails and parks. Some said they wanted to take a fun class with a great professor and get outside. Others took the class to learn more about how to maintain trails and community spaces as skills to apply to their future career. Being with these people showed me more about the culture and purpose of conservation than sitting behind a desk ever could. Everyone can have a connection to the land. Everyone can enjoy being outside, to get a break from sitting in a classroom or an office. Everyone wants to have fun. And everyone cares for our Earth and the future of it.

The first time I showed Kari, the Community Engagement Director, an Instagram reel of me just walking through the woods, I thought she would tell me that there were more important things for me to do. Instead, she asked me if I could do one every week, showing off the trails and beautiful retreats in the Valley. These walks were the best part of my week, a break from long days being a student stuck behind a laptop.

One week, I visited Cranberry Pond near Mount Toby in Sunderland. I was not expecting it to be as beautiful as it was—especially because I had never heard of it before. But it was such a lovely trail. I walked a loop around the pond, stopping to admire the views of the pond, the tall trees, and the lush mosses all around me. Right before turning around, I reached the Roaring Falls, about a mile into the woods. I was shocked to see a waterfall like this so close to my house. I never knew about it! I put together a reel to tell our followers about it and encouraged everyone to visit Cranberry Pond.

The last event I attended for my semester-long internship was the Kestrel Nest Box event at the Silvio Conte Refuge in Hadley. On the walk, a woman came up to me. “You’re Selene, right?” she asks. I tell her, yes, I am. “It’s great to meet you,” she says, “I started coming to Kestrel’s events after seeing your video about the pond in Sunderland on Instagram!”

This was amazing to hear. When I post content on social media, I know that some people see it, but it also feels like shouting into the void. Yet, this person tells me about how she found the trail and tried to follow my path, watching the video over and over trying to figure out where the good spots were. She tells me how she started following Kestrel’s Instagram after finding my video and has attended several events so far.

I was so thrilled to hear that something I did brought one more person into the Kestrel community. Not only was it so peaceful and fun to go on these walks, but it also drew at least one person in to support Kestrel’s mission. That one little video meant that she might be a little more connected to a community of like-minded people and more connected to the land, while actively supporting work to conserve the land in the Valley.

I was so thrilled to hear that something I did brought one more person into the Kestrel community.

One of my favorite parts about this experience was spending time outside and with other people. I always imagined communications positions stuck behind a desk or a computer. Instead, I got to get outside, talk to people, and take pictures of events and beautiful places in the Valley. The day-to-day was fun, but my favorite part was knowing that I was part of an organization that cares for the land we live on and the people around us.

I know I am far from changing the world or our future, but I did help at least one person connect to the land and to a community. Now I know that I can use my education and skills to support an organization that cares for the climate and preserving nature. I can’t thank Kestrel enough for showing me that a career in communications can mean something, and that I can do something.

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