One of the first lessons Mary Abrams learned in the United States Army was the importance of adapting to challenges and overcoming obstacles. She used those skills extensively during her 27 years of service, finding effective and creative ways to address problems. But Abrams probably didn't know at the time that she’d be drawing on that skillset again after she retired and began her work as an Audubon ambassador.

After her time in the military, Abrams knew her next chapter needed to involve making a difference for the environment. That leap made sense: Abrams has always loved birds. One of her fondest memories of growing up in Piseco, New York, was admiring the diversity of species visiting her family’s bird feeder. “In my heart, there has always been this fundamental love of the land and the birds,” said Abrams. “I grew up in the outdoors, and it will forever be my happy place.”

And so, when it was time to find a group with whom to work, Abrams looked up local Audubon chapters in North Carolina. She joined Wake Audubon in 2017, and in the same year, became an Audubon ambassador. Through training, Abrams understood that her love of service, military experience, passion for birds and the outdoors, were all interconnected. She channels this enthusiasm and knowledge from the training into writing letters to lawmakers, planning events for her local chapter, taking local officials on bird walks, and organizing meetings with lawmakers.

Two years later Abrams is one of the main reasons why Audubon North Carolina’s third annual lobby day, which was held in late March, was a success: More than 60 people attended, and the group met with 70 legislators. Abrams worked behind-the-scenes to make it all happen. Kim Brand, state field organizer for Audubon North Carolina, asked a handful of volunteers—including Abrams—to schedule meetings with legislators as well as lead small groups throughout the day.

Senator Wiley Nickel, Mary Abrams, and others discuss Audubon North Carolina's conservation priorities for the current legislative session. Dominic Arenas/Audubon

Audubon North Carolina, along with its volunteers and members, advocated for their conservation priorities for the current legislative session: increasing funding for three state conservation funds, managing land for wildlife and controlling invasive plants, expanding clean energy that avoids significant impacts on birds and natural areas, and safeguarding the state’s coast. Throughout lobby day, in addition to the legislative appointments, volunteers and ambassadors distributed informatiomal packets, with Audubon North Carolina’s conservation priorities, to every senator and representative.

Given the wave of newcomers in the state senate and house—about a quarter of the 50-member Senate and a fifth of the 120-member House—lobby day was also an opportunity to establish relationships with freshman lawmakers. One of the newcomers at North Carolina’s state house is Abrams’ senator, Wiley Nickel. As they waited for their morning meeting, Abrams briefed her fellow constituents about his primary issues, assigned roles for each person in the group, reiterated Audubon’s conservation priorities this legislative session, and reminded the group to thank Senator Nickel for his dedication to protecting the environment. Abrams, along with fellow Wake Audubon members Elizabeth Robinson, Marvin Maddox, and Louise Belk, spoke with Senator Nickel about Audubon North Carolina’s conservation priorities and the threats birds face in North Carolina. In response, Senator Nickel shared his involvement in developing local parks, plans of introducing a bill that would aim for 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 in North Carolina, and joy of spending time outdoors with his two children.

Mary Abrams, Audubon ambassador and chair of Wake Audubon's advocacy committee, pens a thank you card to her local senator after their meeting and tour of the North Carolina capitol building. Dominic Arenas/Audubon

“The best experience and the one that gives me the greatest joy is helping people realize the beauty of birds,” said Abrams. “Seeing that light come on—that these creatures and everything around them are connected—for lawmakers and community members, gets me fired up to do this work. Especially with freshman lawmakers, it's about forging a relationship. Making that personal connection and having them associate you with goodness will help them see you as a valuable voice for the community and resource for environmental knowledge.”

Though Abrams admits scheduling meetings and helping put together lobby day was a difficult task, she also said it was one of the most rewarding experiences as an ambassador. During her journey from bird lover to bird advocate, there was never an ‘aha moment’ for Abrams because this is something she has always wanted to do—advocate for those who cannot.

“Having relationships with leaders in the military and other service members, made this an organic and imminent path. As early as I can remember, I have always loved birds and always rooted for the underdog,” said Abrams. “Whenever I am feeling down or get nervous about an advocacy engagement, I go outside, listen to them, and think about speaking out for them.”

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