How do you measure the success of a career? By the money you earned? By the number of promotions you received? Or by the number of lives you touched?
For educator Kris Hall of Normal, estimating the number of lives she’s impacted is slightly challenging. At last count, we figured the number was upward of 200,000.
“I have talked to a lot of kids,” she admits. “It never gets old; it’s still fun.”
The creator of multiple educational programs at Bloomington’s Miller Park Zoo and Ecology Action Center in Normal, Kris has been teaching children and adults about animals and our planet for three decades. Next week, she will retire after nearly 31 years of service.
In 1987, Kris joined the zoo’s staff and created “Animal Crackers,” which introduced 3- to 5-year-olds and their parents to unusual animals.
Class began with Kris sitting on the floor with preschoolers and their parents, reading about an animal whose identity was not shared in advance. Then everyone got to meet the secret guest in real life. Each week it was a different animal: rabbits, owls, snakes, insects and the occasional lizard.
Amy Alfeo fondly recalled sitting in Animal Crackers sessions with her preschool children (now high school students).
“I think Kris purposely picked snakes as a subject to desensitize me. I hate snakes. She encouraged all of us to touch the animals and learn about their habitats,” she said.
Recently, as Kris and I sat in a local coffee shop, JoAnn Freeman of Normal stopped by to say hello. She and her grandchildren attended Animal Crackers in those early days.
“You made them love animals,” she said, making Kris smile.
The class’ success led to other programs that became so popular Kris had to take her show on the road. With “Zoo to You,” Kris transported animals to schools, libraries, nursing homes and community meetings.
All that time, during thousands of sessions, Kris was sharing, listening, talking and teaching.
In early 2010, she joined the Ecology Action Center, making a move from teaching about animals to helping young people understand their role in taking care of the environment.
“I love seeing that spark when kids get excited and make the connection in learning,” she says.
Sure, kids understand what it means to recycle, but what about that other “r”: reduce? Kris uses fun exercises to help students decide how to reduce their consumption of non-recyclable goods.
Alfeo is a third-grade teacher at Oakdale Elementary School, where Kris has been a guest speaker.
“Kris uses vocabulary that is just difficult enough to challenge kids, but not so difficult they can’t understand it. She keeps them engaged in learning,” said Amy.
“My students have gained so much from their interactions with her. These lessons will remain with them for a lifetime.”
Diane Wolf, assistant regional superintendent of schools, said, “Kris is a dedicated, talented individual who believes in bringing people together to have our communities be the best they can be.”
Diane added Kris “works quietly and behind the scenes” to coordinate support for community agencies and schools. “There has been no ticker tape parade for these activities,” she said.
But Kris isn’t a ticker tape parade kind of person. She just sees a need and gets it done. And all along the way, she’s made friends.
Michael Brown, executive director of the Ecology Action Center, said, “Kris is leaving big shoes to fill. Her impact on multiple generations of local residents has been tremendous.”
Even though her duties officially conclude next week, Kris’ love of nature is far from over. She and her husband, Mike, have been working on a goal to visit all 59 U.S. national parks and have already made it to 44.
“The eight in Alaska plus American Samoa will be tricky!” she says.
I have no doubt Kris will make it happen.