It Takes a Village…of Volunteers

IMG_1497(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

I’ve posted a number of stories here about volunteers who received awards and honors for their work. The recognition and praise is always well deserved and often proves just how much of an impact one person can have. This story out of New Jersey caught my eye because it’s about an award that was given to a group of people who worked together to accomplish a wonderful environmental project. The project being recognized was a rain garden which was installed at Southern Boulevard School, a  K-3 school in the town of Chatham. The statewide award was given to the Chatham Township Environmental Commission, which spearheaded the effort, along with students, parents and school staff members. There was even some help from a grant awarded by the Nature Conservancy. Successful projects such as this one demonstrate how people in a community can come together to create something that will benefit the natural environment while at the same time bringing both joy and educational opportunities to the human population.

The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions gives out the Environmental Achievement Award, which was bestowed to a number of communities. Click here to find out more about the Association and what they do.

After the Storm, Volunteers Lead the Way

Creek of Fallen Leaves(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

It was exactly two years ago that Hurricane Sandy (or Superstorm Sandy) slammed into the east coast of the U.S. The storm brought destruction down on a number of areas, including New Jersey and the city of New York. Since the storm’s arrival on our shores, it has been volunteers who have often led the way as communities recovered and rebuilt. This story out of New Jersey describes how volunteers continue, two years later, to do just that. Some organizations in the area, like this one, are hosting service events to mark the anniversary of the devastating storm.  As this article details, it’s often volunteers who pick up the slack and do the work when government agencies are unable or unwilling to accomplish what needs to get done. As storms like Sandy become more frequent, and they likely will do just that, it’s going to be more and more important for community members and volunteers to come together and help each other get through a community crisis.

Volunteers Helping the Antelope


(Photo by Leupold James, Courtesy of

by Robert Barossi

In so many ways, humans have altered or destroyed countless areas where animal species live or migrate. Migrations patters have been especially disrupted, as cities, towns, roads, highways and other kinds of human development have fractured migration corridors. Recently in Montana, volunteers played a big role in restoring a migration path for the antelope who roam big sky country. The volunteers have been stringing antelope-friendly fence, a project which has gone on for the past four years and included the modification of 18 miles of fence. These volunteer efforts may go a long way toward protecting the antelope and keeping the population in that area healthy and thriving.

The fence building and modification is a project of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Volunteers Learning and Teaching About Bats

Bat3(Photo by Craig Hauger, Courtesy of

by Robert Barossi

Halloween is just a week away so why not a couple of stories involving bats. These often misunderstood creatures are incredibly important and play a major role in their ecosystem. They’re also threatened and/or endangered in many places around the world. On the other hand, in this story out of India, an unexpected species of bat was discovered in the Western Ghats, described as “one of the world’s eight richest biodiversity hotspots.” Volunteers play a role in the program that discovered the bat species, the Eastern Barbastelle, which had previously only been found in temperate climate zones. The project, which included trapping bats and recording their calls, will provide invaluable data about a number of bat species. According to this story out of San Diego, next week, leading up to Halloween, is also National Bat Week. For the occasion, the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Discovery Center held a “Bat Chat,” led in part by  their volunteers. One of the volunteers, Cindy Myers, educated the more than 100 children who participated about many important bat-facts. The knowledge she passed on will hopefully provide an appreciation for these important creatures which the kids will pass on to others and keep with them for the rest of their lives.

Honoring a Young Environmental Hero

Through the Trees(photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

There are many great stories of environmental organizations awarding and honoring their environmental volunteers. The Emerging Environmental Leader Award is given at the Northeast Pennsylvania Environmental Partners Awards Dinner and this year’s recipient already has an impressive track record at the young age of 21. Emily Rinaldi, a senior at Keystone College, a small private college in northeast Pennsylvania, has been volunteering and working paid positions with a number of area environmental organizations. The President of her college’s Ecology Club, she has done work ranging from being the director of Earth Camp to monitoring bird box monitor for a local bluebird monitoring program. Her recognition is well deserved and her future as an environmental leader is a bright one.

Volunteering for National Public Lands Day

IMG_2763(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

I have to confess, I had no idea that it was recently National Public Lands Day, an annual event now in it’s 21st year. This nationwide event, which occurred a few weeks ago on September 27th, included thousands of volunteers doing some amazing work across the country. Last year, events took place at over two thousand sites, where volunteers did everything from removing invasive species to repairing and maintaining trails. This blog from the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that the Forest Service waived fees in an effort to encourage more people to join in the efforts. The National Public Lands Day website offers lots of information including ways for people to stay involved after the event. Locally, there were many events and calls put out for volunteers, all the way across the country, from these events in Alaska and in Hawaii, to these stories out of Pennsylvania and New Orleans. There are many other stories out there about all the events that no doubt made the day a huge success and a major win for our public lands.

An Impressive Coastal Cleanup

IMG_2656(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

Cleaning up coasts, shorelines and bodies of water is one of the most common environmental volunteer activities. It’s also one of the most important. It’s easy to imagine just how polluted our beaches and coastlines would be if nobody ever picked up all that trash and pollution. Not just easy to imagine but kind of frightening. Fortunately, there are dedicated and passionate people, like the 1,616 people who showed up to clean the shores of Mississippi during the annual Mississippi Coastal Cleanup. They picked up an impressive 1,603 bags of trash at 47 sites. The debris included many recyclables and a number of strange and unusual objects. Removing all of it will go a long way to improving or maintaining the health of the beaches and all the ecosystems along the Mississippi coast.

Environmental Volunteering as A Spiritual Calling

IMG_1584(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

It’s been a difficult week for getting on here to post new stories. Back on track soon, but for today, I’m going to post another chapter from my upcoming book (which now has a cover design and it’s extremely cool, if I may say so myself). Here’s another one of my favorite volunteer interviews:


A Spiritual Calling: John Messerschmitt

While religion and spirituality came up with a number of volunteers, there was nobody for whom it was as important as John Messerschmitt, who is both a minister and a psychologist. Sitting in his home office, I asked him what to call him and he said jovially, “you can use doctor cause I’m a psychologist or reverend cause I’m a minister. If title’s matter, put them in. If they don’t, leave them out.” I left them out and just called him John. Although he is an ordained minister, he does not have parish. Rather, he works as a licensed psychologist and pastoral counselor, seeing all types of people including a significant number of clergy and their family. Now semi-retired, he still puts in twelve of fifteen hours of work “for pay,” he says. The work, and the time spent outdoors, must keep him young, as he looks to be nowhere near his early seventies.

           While John now lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he is originally from New York City, where he recalls taking walks in the Bronx Park and Botanical Gardens with his father, something he considers highly influential in terms of his love for the outdoors and the environment. Growing up there and having the opportunity to find those special places where he could play in the woods or lose himself in the outdoors allowed him to connect with nature but also not take it for granted.


After attending Bronx High School of Science and City University of New York in Manhattan, John left the city for Cornell University. He had studied biology as a high school student and an undergrad, with the intention of getting his master’s in wildlife management.

“For a variety of reasons, I determined not to stay in the field of biology and that’s what brought me back to the city to go to the theological seminary,” he says. “There was always that spiritual side to it. My mind is such that I’ve always wrestled with spiritual issues. Those two things are kind of intertwined.”

“The spiritual and the environmental?” I ask.

“For me, there’s a huge connection,” John says. “And there are people who have gotten into this much more deeply than I but just to throw out a term or two, there’s eco-spirituality or eco-theology. The basis of that is a reworking of western, especially European, understandings of the theology that has been the more dominant one for many years, based on the genesis story, where in the myth, God tells Adam and Eve that they are in charge, that everything is lower than them and they are in charge. At its worst, it’s to hell with everything else that’s nature because it’s all about human beings. If you destroy the environment, as long as it’s benefitting human beings, what’s the big deal? That’s the outcome of it. In a way, religion in Europe until the 20th century, and in America, has in a sense been either naive or ignorant about environmental issues or even anti-environmental. The eco-theological or spiritual movement has said that’s a mistake, that a re-reading more deeply and more carefully of the biblical message, especially the Hebrew prophets, has an image of God saying, ‘as human beings you are stewards of the environment, you have the opportunity to take care of and care for the environment, not to dominate it or destroy it for your own ends. To be aware of what’s going on, to be actively involved in aspects that are environmental.’ You think about other people and by extension think about all of creation and that’s the other big theme, that the force or power, what we call God, doesn’t just create human beings, it’s all part of creation, it’s all part of the mystery of spiritualty. To see all of creation, form the beginning of time, in a way, there’s a powerful and profound mystery that we should take some responsibility for. That’s been important for me. If I’m out there abusing my old body helping to clean up Housatonic River, somewhere at least in the back of my mind is the sense that this is a spiritual calling, it’s not just a hobby.”

An active member of church and community, John has made a number of efforts to get involved in environmental activities and opportunities in the Berkshires. His main volunteer efforts involve river cleanups, which he gets to as often as he can and stays with as long as possible. “I have a back problem so I’m not always able to do the whole four hours out there,” he says.

“What’s the strangest thing you ever pulled out of the river?”

“Strangest thing we pulled out of the river,” he says, pausing to think back. “We pulled out some…well, I guess it was memorable, it wasn’t strange I suppose, but it was a tire, a big old tractor tire, a huge thing. Took us hours to dig it out of the mud and then to get it out of the river. That was one of the occasions with me standing on the side, shouting, ‘good work, guys!’” he says with a smile and a laugh.

John notes that he and some members of his church have been trying, with some degree of success, to get their church involved in “these ecologically concerned type enterprises.” This has led, he says, to collaboration between Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) and First Church.

“A colleague friend of mine, Dick Noble, he and I have been key guys at First Church in getting involved with BEAT,” he says. “That’s one of the things we try to do. This particular church wants to hold itself as being involved in the community, wants to get out there. This is a wonderful, spiritually motivated way to get out there and not only do something worthwhile but also to have it have a certain functional integrity. If we claim we want to care about God’s creation, let’s do it. Think globally but act locally, you know. There’s a river down the street and it’s been polluted for forty years, let’s see what we can do to make a difference.”

“Here I was, I was fresh of out of the city, in a sense my wife and I had begun to fulfill our dream because we wanted to get up to New England and be involved in nature and this sounded like a perfect opportunity,” John says of his first river cleanup, many years ago. “There was this river and it needs to be cleaned up. It’s something I can get my hands on, it wouldn’t be just theoretical, it’s concrete. It happened to be down the street, right on the other side of the bridge here, we could walk to it, so we did it.”

Seeing the results from the cleanups has been encouraging, John says, but there’s a negative side as well. He says, “You come back next year and you do the same thing all over again. It still kills me, there’s still a lot of people that unthinkingly just toss stuff. The Audubon Society has a couple of sanctuaries here, one not too far away. My wife and I walk there at least weekly, sometimes two or three times a week and it kills us, you can’t go for a walk without seeing water bottles lining the path…there’s that mix of seeing something worthwhile that you feel good about and at the same time, there’s a skeptical side, that says when are people going to get it?”

“The spiritual element, if it’s a motivating force that has somebody out picking up garbage, that’s wonderful. But the bigger issue, if one claims to be spiritual, is to step back and look at the moral, ethical implications of one’s activities or one’s inactivity,” John says. “That’s where the rubber hits the road. I find that discouraging, especially around here, there’s a significant number of people who go to churches and synagogues, but I dare say a very tiny, minuscule number consider their synagogue or temple participation as, ‘yea, what does that mean for the way I think about the environment?’”

“Do you think,” I ask, “that people would respond if there were environmental messages as part of religious services?”

“I sure would like to see some of the leaders in our religions try to find out. I don’t know, you’re getting into a bigger question,” he says. “What’s the impact of religious leaders, sermons and homilies, on the people sitting there, anyhow? A lot of research says it’s not very big. That most people go to church for the social connectedness, the security of being with people that presumably think like they do and sermons and homilies don’t have as much effect as one might hope. But that’s the point, how about the priest, rabbis and minsters getting the idea and at least giving it a shot? Maybe not just in sermons but in getting groups started and going out and cleaning the Housatonic River. If the leaders, the clergy leaders, would get more involved with this, I can’t but imagine it would have an impact somehow, a positive impact.”

For his part, John has helped to clean pollution from the Housatonic River, something that has taught him about people as well as ecology. “Did I learn it or did I see it illustrated, probably more the latter, that the stuff we throw in the river often makes it impossible for certain forms of live to survive in the river in any kind of healthy way. And likewise, rather amazingly even to scientists, once pollutants are brought down to a certain level, aquatic life comes back quicker than we thought,” he says. “So there’s a double thing, how sad that it’s been wiped out and still is being wiped out and how moving that nature rejuvenates itself when given half a chance to do so.”

“Do the environmental values and spiritual values just go together?” I ask

“For me they’re very meaningful,” he answers. “There’s no clash there. The clash, if you may have picked it up, is within myself. It’s not between science and ecology, it’s between keeping a positive sense of hope about these things and the constant temptation to become cynical or jaded and just say, ‘what am I wasting my time for?’ That’s the back and forth.”

Pressing the issue a little farther, I ask, “Can the environmental movement tap more into that spirituality? Should it?”

“I go with could and might, not sure that it should. Because I think there’s a lot of streams that feed the river in these movements, including the environmental movement, and one of them is pragmatic, just saying, ‘look, if the environment is cleaner and well taken care of that’s better for me and for my grandchildren, it’s better for society.’ It’s a deep value for me, which is spiritual, so it comes together that way. There could be others, where if someone could articulate that sense of connection in such a way that it was not parochial, non-denominational, that some people might be very affected by it in a positive way.”

“Are you hopeful?”

“My own hope is that people will go through an evolution and be, so to speak, inspired, spiritually or otherwise, to do something,” he says “My hope is that if people do enough of, for instance, cleaning the river, at least some of them are going to say, ‘what can we do to change things so it doesn’t happen in the first place?’”







Cleaning Up Plastic Along Australia’s Coastline

ID-10054449(Photo by Troy Faulder, courtesy of

by Robert Barossi

It’s become an unfortunate truth of our time that our oceans are filled with plastic. There are now-famous islands of garbage which have appeared, floating in the middle of the vast ocean expanse. On shores and coastlines, plastic is washing up everywhere. At pretty much any spot, along any beach or rocky coast, you can see bits and pieces of plastic floating on or deposited by the waves. This story out of Australia looks at the serious problem of plastic washing ashore and the volunteers who are making a major effort to clean it up. Every Sunday morning, these groups of volunteers are filling numerous bags of rubbish, including lots of plastic, from spots along the coast.  These groups of concerned citizens are giving their time, energy and effort to clean up their beaches and waterways, making at least a small dent in what is a worsening global problem.

The Increasing Importance of Citizen Scientists

IMG_1538(Photo by Robert Barossi)

By Robert Barossi

A number of stories on this blog have mentioned the work of citizen scientists. These everyday citizens, not scientists by trade or profession, are doing invaluable and essential work. They are collecting and gathering data which is necessary in dealing with the environmental problems of our time. Or, as this article says it, they are “key to keeping pace with environmental change.” As mentioned in the story, we may be at a point where the amount of data we need to be collecting and following far outweighs our ability to keep up with it. There are so many changes happening, so frequently and in so many places, that citizen scientists are only going to become more and more important as we struggle to keep up with what’s happening around us.