For nearly three years, Andi Rittel has shared her passion for nature and wildlife with children and adults at the Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center in Blue Springs, where she is a volunteer naturalist about 25 hours a month.

Don’t let Andi Rittel’s blonde hair and blue eyes and the fact that she likes to shop fool you.

Her biggest hobbies in life include hunting and fishing – and her favorite animal is the snake.

“Aside from not everyone understanding them – there’s a lot to teach about them, from that point,” Andi said of snakes. “There’s a lot of really cool things about them and their habits.”

For nearly three years, Andi has shared her passion for nature and wildlife with children and adults at the Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center in Blue Springs, where she is a volunteer naturalist about 25 hours a month.

Burr Oak Woods staff members say Andi has already donated the equivalent of 10 years of service to the Missouri Department of Conservation. That’s because youth volunteers are asked to commit 60 hours per year, and since March 2010, Andi’s donated nearly 600 hours of service.

At age 16, Andi was recently chosen from among more than 40 other youth and adult volunteers at Burr Oak Woods as the 2011 Volunteer Naturalist of the Year. It’s all leading up to Andi’s dream of pursuing a major in wildlife biology and eventually finding work as a fisheries biologist.

On Thursday morning, as Andi handled a black ratsnake-albino and prepared to have her picture taken with it, a group of adults and children suddenly formed around her.

Andi took it all in stride and began teaching the group an impromptu lesson about the harmless snake.
    
How did you become interested in volunteering at Burr Oak Woods?
Andi: I’ve been hanging around here for a long time. I’ve been coming to programs and stuff since I was a little kid. My brother actually became a youth volunteer first, in the first class that (Burr Oak Woods) had. He’s 18 now, so he’d been doing it for about two years. When I was 14, which is the age that you have to be, he kind of got me into it. He made it sound really fun.

When you were a kid, what did you enjoy about the Nature Center?
Andi: Probably the Skills Camp that they have. They still do that, and I have a lot of fun working with the kids. They teaching canoeing, archery, fishing, compass and shooting air rifles. My favorite part, probably, was the fishing and canoeing, then.

What have you learned from being a volunteer at Burr Oak Woods?
Andi: Any time you do a program working with the naturalists out here, you learn something new. They just know so much about everything. Also, working with people and working with kids is a great skill, I think, that I’ve picked up.

Why do you think volunteerism is important?
Andi: I think it’s really important because everyone has something that they’re into, and there are people out there who haven’t experienced what that particular person is into. If people can give other people experiences that they haven’t had before, they can get really interested in new things.
I like helping kids do that, just because I’ve always had that in my life, but some kids haven’t.
 
About Andi Rittel
Age: 16
Residence: Independence
Volunteers at: Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center. Also is active in Student Council, National Honor Society, Theatre Design and Spanish Club.
For how long? Since March 2010.
Day job: Sophomore at Truman High School. Also works part-time at a pet store.