Natalie Johnson stands on the shoreline of Lake Michigan and just looks out. She feels the waves on her toes, hears the waves wisp near her ears, and sees the plants, the birds, and the people all surrounding her.
“To be so close to Lake Michigan and to be on the shoreline, with this beautiful ecosystem and the waves stretching as far as I can see, is the most calming and meditative thing I can ask for,” Johnson said. “It is a recharge. It is my recharge.”
Johnson came to this part of the country from the St. Louis River Bend area, where she grew up. As a child, she was the kid who came back home covered in mud, clothes ripped by branches, and telling her parents her latest bug finds and adventures she had experienced during the day. She grew up outside on her farm, plus attending a nature camp, where she was a camper, then volunteer, then worked at as her first job. She was a big 4-Her, she said, usually entering into the poultry contest.
She was that 5th grader who knew what she was going to be when she grew up: working in the environmental and educational fields.
Now, as the recently hired Executive Director of the Northwest Indiana Save the Dunes non-profit organization, she can tell that 5th grade self that her dreams came true.
Johnson received two bachelor degrees, one in science and one in secondary education, both with a focus on biology.
“By getting the degree in secondary education, that taught me how to work with older audiences, so I walked away with a well rounded education of not only the science, but the communication, so that I can teach people and know how to get people enthusiastic about what I am enthusiastic about, which is the environment,” she explained.
She first got a job as the Northwest Indiana Urban Water Ambassador, a position formed by the President Barak Obama’s administration. The position was housed at the Save the Dunes house in Michigan City, which is how Johnson discovered her new home.
She moved here in 2011, and after her interview for the job, she jumped into her car and drove straight to Mt. Baldy.
“I stood out there and was completely in awe,” she said. “There is not an appropriate word that describes how amazing this landscape is. So, it was love at first sight. Absolutely. It was beautiful and I had that moment there in Mt. Baldy in Michigan City that was quite profound.”
She credits the many relationships and bonds that were formed between herself and the many local organizations, like Save the Dunes, for her success here.
“I got to know all of the Northwest Indiana environmental communities and what the community wants for their natural resources,” she said.
Her go-getter, chipper attitude made her the perfect person for the ED job at the Save the Dunes organization. She is currently one month into her new position and has been learning more and more about the many things Save the Dunes helps and contributes with in the area. She is meeting with the partners, the members, and the other entities of Northwest Indiana that Save the Dunes works with, like the Indiana Dunes State Park, National Lakeshore, and other non-profits.
Last year, she finished her Masters work in natural resources and environmental science, publishing a thesis on septic systems in the Northwest Indiana area.
“What a dirty topic for me to dive into, right?” she said laughing, “But when I was working on my Masters degree, I was introduced to the topic of social science and why and how people think the way they do about the environment.”
Her proposed program was approved and is now being used by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Save the Dunes to teach people about proper maintenance and care.
The director role of Save the Dunes was made for Johnson, who spends her days enthusiastically telling people about the dunes, the history of the organization, and continuing the work to protect and preserve the dunes.
“I want to establish an open door policy. I want people to know me, my staff, and to know we are a membership organization that is funded through the community,” she said. “I am still getting acquainted with everyone and cheerleading on the amazing story of Save the Dunes.”
After work, Johnson returns home to her small Miller Beach home, minutes from the beach shore with backyard chickens plucking in the yard. She frequently dines at “the awesome” Flamingo Pizza of Miller, and judges poultry at local 4-H competitions.
“We have such a precious place we live in and live with such great people,” she said. Standing on the shoreline, you’re in this meditative state, like you’re the only one in the world, but that is what is great about Northwest Indiana, she added.
“I can go out there and look at the wind and the waves and will be enjoying the scenery… but I am usually doing it with my friends and neighbors next to me.”