Park Manager Michelle Cunningham
Park Service Profiles
Meet Michelle Cunningham, the Park Manager at Little Pee Dee State Park! Growing up, Michelle had access to many parks, open country and the Shawnee National Forest, where she spent a lot of time in nature but never dreamed being able to work in a park was a possibility. She attended college in the Midwest and became a Veterinary Technician. Several years and states later, her career led her to move to Burlington, Vermont, where she decided to start her own business running a doughnut shop. In 2017, Michelle sold everything she owned, bought a camper and spent a year traveling the United States. Her travels led her to Oregon where she became a campground host and she realized having a career in parks was possible. Michelle attended the National Park Service Law Enforcement Academy in Washington State and became a Seasonal Ranger in Washington State Parks. Looking for a full-time position, Michelle accepted a Park Ranger position at Hickory Knob State Resort Park in 2020. She later promoted to Ranger II at Barnwell State Park before becoming manager of Little Pee Dee State Park.
When asked why she wanted to become a Park Manager, Michelle said “I wanted to affect change within the park that would show impacts for years to come. Being a manager, I get to make those impactful decisions.” Manager duties can vary from park to park, but with a small staff at Little Pee Dee, Michelle helps out with everything. From performing park maintenance and keeping restrooms clean, to creating budgets and filling out purchase orders.
If she is able to get away from the office during the summer, you’ll most likely find Michelle on a lawnmower. It’s one of her favorite tasks! She also loves educating people about nature and the park. A self-identified bird nerd, she enjoys teaching others about the fun sounds of birds. Fun fact, if you look up the call of a brown-headed nuthatch, it sounds like a squeaky toy!
Sometimes the job of park manager proves to be difficult. A few years ago, a fire broke out at Little Pee Dee. Michelle says “closing the park, evacuating guests and making sure everyone stayed safe was a challenging experience.”
For someone interested in working for South Carolina State Parks, Michelle suggests talking to a park ranger. “I love talking to folks about how to have a career within the park service. Interning, volunteering or doing a summer job is a great way to test the waters and see if it’s something you enjoy,” she says.
For someone wanting to make a career in the park service, Michelle offers this advice:
Read the book “Dare to Lead” by Brene Brown. It’s a fantastic book on many different aspects of leadership. I would also talk to your supervisor and other people currently in the position you are wanting to promote to. How have they been successful? What do you need to do in order to improve your skill set? The question I ask myself every day is, “How can I serve this park and its community today?”
Michelle is almost an Ultimate Outsider with only five parks remaining, which she plans to visit by the end of the year. Among her favorite parks is Little Pee Dee.
Although I see it every day, Little Pee Dee is at the top of my list. I enjoy visiting smaller, out of the way parks that often go unnoticed. When I recently visited the mountain region, I fell in love with the quiet serenity of Jones Gap State Park. My career in South Carolina started at Hickory Knob State Resort Park so it will always hold a special place in my heart. I also have to give an honorable mention to the artesian well at Barnwell State Park. It’s in a quiet part of the park that has great bird watching.
Thank you, Michelle, for your hard work and dedication to the state park service! To get a sneak peek of what a day in Michelle’s life is like at Little Pee Dee, watch Episode 29 of our “Day in the Life” series.
Think you might be interested in a job with the South Carolina State Park Service? Click here to see our current, full-time job openings!