BENZONIA — Leather scraps can take you places, discovered Amalia Fernand.
She, a high school student at the time, wanted something as teens do — in this case, a pricey trip to Australia. Her mom, Diana Hooyman, granted permission with one catch — she’d have to earn her own $2,000 plane ticket. The incentive launched Fernand’s leather bracelet business — her father Steven is the former owner and founder of Fernand Footwear and scraps came easy — but more importantly, reinforced the concept “do the work, see the world.”
“I’m sure my mom spent more in beads to help me with my business than what the actual ticket cost,” Fernand said. “But it taught me an important lesson: if you want to do something, make it happen.”
Fernand, 33, has since written her own ticket to 17 countries and six continents, combining environmental stewardship, art and education with her passion for globetrotting. She, 33, is currently packing for Borneo where she will work for the Orangutan Foundation International. Fernand’s job will be to document in words, photos and social media the work of the Orangutan Center and Quarantine facility where up to 330 orphaned orangutans regain physical health and learn necessary survival skills before release back into the wild. She will report to one of the original “tri-mates” — Birutė Marija Filomena Galdikas — who along with Dian Fossey (apes) and Jane Goodall (chimpanzees) went into the wild to study primates in their natural environments.
The strenuous hiring process included 5 interviews and lasted 19 months.
“It’s pretty exciting — she’s pretty famous,” Fernand said of conversations with Galdikas.
Fernand loves working with the natural world but her primary interest is getting kids excited about plants and animals, too, she said.
She hauls a backpack full of bubbles, art supplies, binoculars and snacks wherever she goes and makes a point to connect to local kids through Nature Explorers International, a program of her own creation that incorporates natural lore with plays, projects and outdoor excursions. It’s amazing what art and enthusiasm can convey, Fernand said.
“In a lot of places, I don’t speak the language beyond a few words,” Fernand said. “But you can teach kids anything, and it’s important for them to know about their environment, raise their curiously and get them excited about nature.”
Fernand’s Nature Explorer International backpack makes the local rounds as well, as she typically teaches after-school and summer programs at the Children’s House Montessori in Traverse City and does bracelet-making and event photography on the side. Fernand also published a coloring guidebook to Michigan animals and eventually would like to write a book about her next adventure. Borneo is just the beginning as she will parry the trip into a year of travel, possibly through Africa and South America, she said.
“It’d be kind of an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ meets ‘Last Child in the Woods,’” Fernand said. But she’s leaving her plans — and ticket — open to see where life takes her.
“I have a one-way ticket to Kuala Lumpur and will go from there,” Fernand said.
She’s throwing herself a Borneo Bash — a part-fundraiser, part going-away party — Nov.1 at The Cabbage Shed in Elberta from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. which features sales of Fernand’s leather work and wildlife photography, live music, silent auction and a garage sale. The event will also include an educational Borneo slideshow, a leather workshop, outdoor Nature Explorers fun, a potluck, and a Halloween costume contest.
Fernand is currently featuring a different unique animal from Borneo every day for 50 days on the Nature Explorers International Facebook page.