The Watershed was Calling: A Reflection on Over 20 Years Volunteering with the MRWA

Cindy J. Fitzwilliams – Heck
Director, Muskegon River Watershed Assembly (Retired)

It was my calling to volunteer with the MRWA. Personally, I have always stuck up for people or causes that needed a voice.  I believe getting involved with something that you care about can always help in some capacity.  Taking action gives me a sense of peace and satisfaction knowing that I have done something to move the needle of change in the right direction.

It was 2001, and the MRWA needed help finding its voice.  I thought I could help channel their mission toward the citizens and educators of the Muskegon River Watershed.  If you believe things happen for a reason, then this was one of those times.

In 2001, I was new to the biology faculty at Ferris State University.  With a background in aquatic ecology and environmental education, I felt the need to find a way to utilize my knowledge and skills in a meaningful way.  Soon after the beginning of the semester, an advertisement for a public meeting caught my attention. The focus was about the health of our environment, and it was held at a convenient, local conference center.  Perfect.  During that meeting, I realized that the college sits approximately midway within our mighty watershed. I learned there was a recently formed nonprofit organization that had the mission to preserve, protect, and restore the Muskegon River Watershed. That this group, the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly, along with a network of impressive researchers collected an immense amount of data and was putting the final touches on an extensive management plan. Furthermore, I discovered that the MRWA office was on the FSU campus. A sign-up sheet for volunteers or committees materialized.  The watershed was calling me.

As I was considering how to contribute to this important cause, Kathy Evans, who I later discovered was a rock star in terms of our watershed conservation, approached me about helping to direct my eagerness to participate. We landed on the Education Committee. The MRWA was so new, that the committees were just forming. While serving on this committee, I realized my passion for environmental education and making a positive difference in the world.  This type of work was definitely my calling.

During my time on this committee, over 17 years in total, I helped develop and facilitate numerous initiatives, many of them while working very closely with the MRWA administrator and program director, Terry Stilson.  Those that I am most proud of include:

  • litter clean-up partnerships between the MRWA, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and my FSU students;
  • the MiCorps Volunteer Stream Monitoring program;
  • the Aquatic Academy for Teachers;
  • planning and planting community and school rain gardens;
  • community tree planting initiatives;
  • the natural shorescaping outreach program;
  • elementary school water fairs;
  • guest speaking in classrooms;
  • conference presenter and exhibitor;
  • the Discover Maple River field day;
  • and a number of ideas yet to bring to fruition (and probably things I have accidentally left out).

While I was contributing toward the MRWA’s efforts to educate the citizens of the watershed, I was recruited to serve on its Board of Directors as Vice Chair. It was an honor to serve the organization in this capacity.  Due to my other personal and professional commitments, I only served as Vice Chair for one term, but committed nine years on the Board. This elevated my awareness and passion to do what I could to meet the MRWA’s mission. I also had the opportunity to work closely with the staff and other volunteers who amazed me with their knowledge and desire to contribute to the organization.

Although my time on the Board has ended, I continue to help the MRWA whenever I can.  Currently, I work as the Project Manager for the Lower Muskegon River Watershed Management Plan until the close of that grant in December of 2023.  I still teach at FSU, and do so from a watershed perspective with an emphasis on the Muskegon River – this is, of course, thanks to the influence of my time with the MRWA.  Each semester, I also have students who contribute volunteer hours toward an MRWA initiative.  My students leave my class knowing more about where they live and what they can do to protect it.  This is an important part of what I do (again, thanks to my watershed calling).

My advice for anyone who wants to help the environment is to contact the local watershed council.  These people can direct your energy toward positive change where you live.  Every living and nonliving thing is connected by the watershed in which they exist.  A watershed is an immediate commonality with all that lives within it; it’s relevant, it’s a reason to care, and getting involved is a way to make a meaningful impact in the place you live.  By volunteering your time … say, with the MRWA … you will grow on a personal level, enhance your professional goals, and help the precious landscape in which we reside.  Everything I did for the MRWA and everyone I met through the MRWA helped me grow within my career as an environmental educator and as an advocate for our Muskegon River Watershed. For that, I am forever grateful for that watershed calling.

Editor’s note:  Although Cindy has resigned her seat on the board, her impact on the organization will endure.  Perhaps the best measurement of her contributions is the impression she made on her colleagues. This is what they had to say:

Ken Johnson, Board Chair, MRWA

Cindy brought competence and integrity to our organization.  As a professor of biology, her knowledge was invaluable and her dedication was a great help to MRWA.  Hopefully, one day she returns because she will certainly be missed.

Wayne Groesbeck, Vice Chair, MRWA

Cindy has demonstrated her gifts as an educator on behalf of the MRWA, able to relate to all age groups on a range of topics, and I’m certain she’ll be successful at whatever pursuits lie in her future.  What I will miss even more is her warm smile, her insights cordially expressed, and her respect for other board members’ opinions.  Thank you, Cindy.

Marty Holtgren, Principal Watershed Scientist, MRWA

If I were asked to describe Cindy in a single word, it would be “powerhouse”.   When I first started working for MRWA a few years back I remember being excited to work with her, because you know when you work with Cindy the job will get done and it will be done right.  She is a doer.  I have found it common that when I tell people I am working with Cindy they light up and say “Ohhhh”.  They know too – she is a powerhouse.  She has the combination of an unrelenting drive, grit, sharp intellect, honest and direct communication, and friendly demeanor.  On second thought…if I had to describe Cindy in a single word it would be “friend”.  Cindy is a friend, to me, the MRWA, the watershed and the people of the watershed.  She has been on the MRWA board for over a decade, a time in which she has used every opportunity to help the organization succeed in meeting its mission, of not only improving the watershed but improving how people IN the watershed understand, interact, and relate to the watershed.

Like Cindy, I have “trained” people in monitoring their watershed but Cindy takes it to a different level.  After people have been trained by Cindy, as  they have stood in the river and used a kicknet to inventory the aquatic insect life, they understand and appreciate the river through the eyes of a gifted teacher.  Thanks to Cindy, the water has become alive, the little creatures tell a story about the shared place we live, and they arecalled by their fascinating names – water pennies, giant waterbugs, water scorpions, and purse caddisfly.

Cindy, thank you for the years of dedicated service to the MRWA and the solid foundation you have left for the organization.  You will be missed by so many people, but I know your legacy will resound for generations to come.  It will resound in the people that you have touched and are following in your footsteps of being a powerhouse for the watershed.

Nancy Burmeister, Director, MRWA (retired)

The MRWA has lost a great friend and worker.  My friendship with Cindy runs very deep because of all the great times we had together.

Cindy provided wonderful leadership to the Education Committee and certainly affected the lives of so many students!

Teacher workshops at Camp Newaygo were inspiring through your leadership.

I remember the great fun learning how to monitor Ryan Creek.  Memories of this over the ten years we shared on this project brings tears to my eyes

When we did the tree and brush planting at Swede Hill in Big Rapids, Cindy, as usual, stuck with it until the job was done.

Twin Lakes Workshop was always a great time together and provided inspiring nature education to the children in that district.

For me, the trips riding together to Board meetings were so much fun, and the Board Christmas dinners were priceless.

She nominated me for the Northern Lights Environmental Award, which was one of the biggest thrills of life, one I’ll never forget

You have influenced so many people and the Muskegon River is so much better because of your caring and efforts.  We all treasure the joys you have brought to us.

Please keep in touch. We know you will leave more of you mark in the future.