The People Behind the PCTA: Sheila Garcia, Human Resources Generalist

Sheila Garcia’s journey through life and the outdoors began with her parents, who met as children in the small town of Jojutla, Morelos in Mexico. In the ancient Nahuatl language, the name Jojutla means place of abundant blue skies, which, along with the natural beauty of the region, instilled in Sheila’s parents a love of the outdoors.

Sheila in her happy place: surrounded by green nature.

“I love listening to their childhood stories,” says Sheila, “about how they fell in love with each other, but also with their surroundings and nature. That love of nature runs through my veins. My dad loves to say he’s a niño del rio (child of the river) because he spent so much time in and around the river.”

The second-oldest of four sisters, Sheila was born in Southern California’s Orange County after her parents immigrated to the United States. “They came here in their early twenties to join some relatives that were already established in the States who provided lots of love and support for my young parents,” she says. “This was a bond around which their lives revolved. Familia es todo—family is everything. To us it means I love you, I’ll be with you, and you’ll have my support through thick and thin. It’s just always been that way.”

Sheila (second from left) on a childhood trip with her parents and three sisters.

Like their own childhood, Sheila’s parents’ stories of her childhood always involved being outside. “I was never indoors,” she says. “I was always out climbing a tree, swimming or jumping into a river. It was always something that had to do with being outdoors.  My home was very much nature.”

Growing up, nature was the family’s reward for hard work. “My parents worked hard. They both worked two jobs to be able to afford to take us on weekend trips to outdoor places. Every trip we would travel farther and farther. And I’m forever grateful for that because it’s how I discovered my love for our national parks.”

Sheila’s father got a job working for the Four Seasons hotel chain—and a benefit was that he and the family could stay free in Four Seasons hotels. For Sheila, there were different sides to this benefit. It enabled the family to travel to places like the Grand Canyon, but also resulted in feelings of being different. “Looking back at those memories now,” she says, “those were my first real moments of feeling like, oh—I don’t fit in here.”

Every summer the family would travel. And it wasn’t just her family on these trips, Sheila says. “It was always also my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, the neighbors, my best friend and her son, and eventually my partner and my partner’s family.” Each year the group got larger, and everybody loved tagging along in the Garcia’s camping trips.

Sheila’s parents, Gerardo and Justina Garcia, in Zion National Park.

Sheila discovered the national parks on trips with her family—experiencing places she says she didn’t know existed like Yosemite National Park. She remembers seeing a park ranger and thinking “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” As she became older, Sheila began to have conflicted feelings between her love for experiencing the outdoors with family and friends, and her desire to follow her own path. “It felt like I was betraying my family because I wanted to do more,” she remembers.

After graduating from California Baptist University with a B.A. degree in cultural anthropology, Sheila found an internship with the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. Unfortunately the pandemic prevented her from traveling to the Chesapeake Bay for the work, but she researched best practices related to opportunities for Latinx communities and these green spaces. Later, she did field work for the U.S. Forest Service and BLM, including some time at the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument.

During this time, she moved to the Northern California town of Ukiah. “Even though I was born in SoCal,” Sheila says,” I always felt this urge to escape to NorCal—my heart and mind and soul longed for it. I loved being there—everything was just so green and beautiful.” She also applied for a position as the first bilingual interpretive ranger at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. She interviewed for the position. “After that, I got the news I’d been waiting for since I was seven: that I had gotten the position. I was so excited, but also nervous about relocating again to Redding so soon after moving to Ukiah.”

Sheila did relocate for the job, which was a seasonal position based around summer recreation on Whiskeytown Lake. She drew attention for being the first person selected for the new position and was featured in stories by area newspapers and the television network Telemundo. It was fun, and she gave paddleboard and kayak programs all summer. But it was also a difficult experience. “I was this 4-foot-11-inch young lady walking up to someone on the beach saying ‘You can’t drink here.’ I had too many of those moments that didn’t feel good, so I struggled through the season trying to feel like I had the authority. I knew I had the authority, but it didn’t feel that way in those moments sometimes.”

Sheila at Whiskeytown National Recreation area with her supporters Scott Einberger (Supervisory Interpretive Ranger) and Greg Williams (Fire Interpreter).

Sheila’s love for the outdoors never diminished, though it was a challenge to reach beyond her lifelong experiences being outdoors with all her family and friends and experience nature on her own. “It just felt like a taboo; at least in my culture, for the most part a woman doesn’t go out in the woods alone, let alone move out of her house before marriage. All of those things kind of felt like, so unreachable.” But she pushed herself, and went camping alone for the first time. “It felt so amazing,” she remembers. “A lot of my family said ‘You did what?! You weren’t scared?!’ No—it was actually great, and a chance to learn about myself.”

The experience encouraged Sheila to do even more on her own. After her season at Whiskeytown ended, she found her position at the PCTA through the Bridge Project, a special program connecting people of color and underrepresented communities with environmental jobs. “One of the things I love about my work now is that I’ve become a bridge to help people follow their passion, advocate for the environment, and advocate for underrepresented communities. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity and it’s all thanks to my parents. My parents always said you have to go to school and get an education. And I really held on to that and ran with it and made it my own.”

Sheila guiding the Garcia family on a kayak tour.

Meanwhile, Sheila’s parents and family often come up north to visit, and she takes them to see her favorite natural places and sights; some new, some very familiar. “It’s been funny because every time my mom and dad are here, I’m in the driver’s seat driving us to our next adventure and my dad starts sharing his memories of being in the driver’s seat and seeing his four little girls through his rearview mirror, and now the tables are turned and I’m taking them to all these really amazing places.”

Familia es todo.

Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.