This post also serves as the introduction to my book.
“I’d like to do some press about our volunteers.”
Those words, spoken by Kristi Perry, P.R. Manager for The Trustees of Reservations, Massachusetts’ largest land conservation organization, jump started my journey into the most rewarding and exciting work of my life thus far. Kristi and I, during those earliest conversations, discussed how I might help her get the word out about the small army of volunteers who help The Trustees in every way imaginable. Their volunteers, at every property in every corner of the state, do crucial and meaningful work, never asking anything in return other than the chance to get involved and give back.
A few weeks after Kristi and I began planning, I was attending meetings at the offices of The Trustees, discussing the idea for volunteer press with a number of other staff members. Their enthusiasm for the project was infectious, and getting to work alongside staffers at an environmental nonprofit organization was both exciting and a true education.
On Earth Day of 2011, I was at my first volunteer event at the organization’s Coolidge Point property. We spent the day cleaning a beach; picking up trash washed up in the waves and caught in the rocky outcroppings along the shore. Roughly twenty of us, including many young children ages five to fourteen, cleaned the beach meticulously. It was my first experience of many in the kinds of work performed by dedicated environmental volunteers.
That summer was spent joining those volunteers at many Trustees of Reservations properties, meeting with them for in-person interviews. At the Rocky Woods property on National Trials Day, we repaired water bars on trails deep in the New England woods. At Long Hill, The Trustees operates a large garden where the public can purchase flowers. On a hot day in June, a group of volunteers and I got down in the dirt and worked the garden, planting seedlings and pulling unwanted plants. While many volunteers I met work in the outdoors, some spend their time gathering around a conference table. One such group is the Friends of Francis William Bird Park, who, when I met them, were working with The Trustees to build a new playground at the park in their community.
Volunteer interviews that summer took me from Walpole, a suburb of Boston where the Bird Park is located, to the rural hamlet of Rochester, where I met volunteers who monitored bird boxes at another Trustees property. I would meet a number of other bird box monitors as well as some trail stewards, one of the most common environmental volunteer jobs. On the north shore of Massachusetts, I met a group of volunteers who work at the historic and spectacular Crane Estate, a signature property of The Trustees. These volunteers do everything from giving public tours of the estate to working on maintenance projects like painting doors and fixing trellises.
From enormous historic estates, volunteer interviews took me to humble farms, like Powisset Farm, where The Trustees operates a CSA. While, truth be told, many of the volunteers were very similar kinds of people, their backgrounds, histories, and motivations were as diverse as the volunteer work they performed. As I spent the summer writing press releases which were sent to local and state-wide newspapers, I knew these people had great stories to tell. And I knew that the work they were doing deserved the public’s attention.
What followed was nothing less than an adventure, across New England from the southern coast of Rhode Island to the deep woods of northern New Hampshire. Volunteer interviews took place in all kinds of locations, from mountainous hiking trails to the dining room of the Boston Yacht Club. And the people ranged from a young man who just graduated college to a number of men and women in their seventies. No matter how different they were, no matter where they were from, they shared certain indelible qualities, and first and foremost was a connection to nature, the environment and the outdoors.
Along the way, the environmental volunteers I met inspired and amazed me with their passion, enthusiasm, dedication and spirit. They made me want to know more about who environmental volunteers are and why they do it. I began to ask questions, such as: Who are these people who volunteer? What motivates people to volunteer for the environment? What keeps them doing it year after year, what brings them back? What benefit do they get out of it? How does volunteering change or impact their connection to a place? What kinds of environmental problems are volunteers helping to solve? How successful are they at solving or combating those problems?
This book will, I hope, answer some of these questions. It surveys the lives of everyday citizens who volunteer for conservation organizations, those with missions supporting the preservation of the natural world. While some essential questions, like the ones above, are asked, my goal was to go beyond simply asking these questions and analyzing the answers. I wanted to tell the tales of these volunteers, in their own words, offering some of the answers while relating the personal stories of these people, their volunteer efforts how those efforts impact the health of our planet every day.
Volunteerism in general is extremely important and an essential aspect of both nonprofit and government organizations. Conservation organizations, from land trusts to watershed associations, seem especially dependent on their dedicated volunteers, sometimes making up a small army who conduct the work which would otherwise take many paid staff members. Speaking with those volunteers, I was able to hear their stories of how and why they feel a deeper connection to a place and then act upon that connection by volunteering. Not interested in an academic, statistical study of how many people volunteer for conservation organizations and the demographics of those people, I looked beyond simple numbers, facts and figures.
I hope these stories will provide you, the reader, with an opportunity to learn about the environmental problems that are happening all over the world, from countries many miles away to your own backyard. More importantly, I hope it will inspire you to get involved, give back and do what you can to combat or reverse ecological concerns in your own area. From testing the quality of water in the local river to protecting urban green spaces, it is all vital and essential work. There are countless environmental organizations in every region and locale, including yours, who are trying to accomplish this kind of work but they need our assistance. And like the many volunteers in this book, anything you can do to help them, no matter how great or small, can and will make an enormous difference.