by Robert Barossi
Finally back at the blog today and I’m posting another chapter from my upcoming book. This one features a volunteer who offers some wisdom about how busy people can find the time to get involved in volunteer efforts.
Finding the Time: Bill Dwyer
Bill Dwyer has lived on the coast of Rhode Island for the “vast majority” of his life, having grown up in Bristol, then moving to Warren and Great Barrington. His career as an IT professional keeps him very much indoors during work time. He balances that with plenty of time spent outdoors, volunteering, along with his wife Deb, for Audubon of Rhode Island and Save the Bay. Sitting in his kitchen, Bill, with an endless amount of joyous energy, told me of the many ways he and Deb assist these organizations. Activities range from managing and leading beach cleanups, selling memberships, setting up audio equipment, all the way to dressing up as a red fox during Audubon’s yearly Halloween hike in the woods. The Dwyers are an example not only of the many different ways volunteers can get involved in environmental organizations, but also how busy, working people can find time and opportunities to make a difference. Finding those ways to make a difference is something Bill feels strongly everyone can and should be doing.
“In my generation, kids went outside,” Bill says with a laugh. “I remember going down the fields and playing baseball with the guys and there wasn’t a lot of…there wasn’t a huge amount of organized stuff other than the farm team and the little league. We played in the field that we cut the grass on if we needed to. I think there were forsythia bushes that if you hit it into the bushes it was a double. If you hit it over the bushes it was a home run except for one kid who was so much bigger than the rest of us, for him over the bushes was a double and you had to hit Mrs. Dixon’s roof for a home run. It was baseball and football and basketball. But we did winter stuff to, like we went tobogganing and we went sledding. But that was what you did. You didn’t sit home and watch the television then. You got snowed in, you made a snow fort, you went sledding. I grew up near the water, I grew up in Bristol, the water was three houses down the street from me. The common in Bristol had a basketball court…a bunch of us would bicycle to down near the college, there was a basketball court down there that they let us use. When you’re outside at say five…when you’re seven, eight, nine, it’s just a playground to you; you don’t appreciate where it came from. It’s just there.”
For the past twenty-five years, Bill has been helping Audubon of Rhode Island with the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, an annual event where local residents lead cleanup efforts at area beaches. “I wasn’t there the first year,” he says. “I think I found out about it the second year and I said, ‘I’ll run one of those.’ I think it was somehow or other I saw it in the paper. For the last few years, there’s been over a hundred beaches cause it’s not just beaches anymore, it’s the rivers and stuff like that. If I remember right, the first year, there were only eight beaches in the state of Rhode Island that got done. I was in the second group, so it wasn’t like there were a lot of beaches to sign up and go clean. They needed somebody to lead a beach so I said, ‘ok, I’ll do that.’”
“How does the International Coastal Cleanup work?” I ask.
“You can read more about it on the Ocean Conservancy website…it is literally what it says, an international coastal cleanup,” Bill says. “We’re cleaning in Rhode Island, somebody is cleaning in Florida, somebody is cleaning in France, and somebody is cleaning in the Philippines. All on the same day. If you go to the Ocean Conservancy website, you can actually see the statistics that have been collected all over the world…The International Coastal Cleanup, you document what you picked up, so you know that you picked up 1000 cigarette butts, 300 plastic tabs, this many pieces of fishing line, this many plastic bottles. That makes a huge difference. Years ago, I went to the town council in Barrington, got myself put on the agenda, and I requested that they ban smoking on all town properties and I had the statistic of what we picked up on the beach for the last several years. The town council and I compromised and we banned smoking on the town beach. But that’s how we got smoking banned on Barrington Beach and the same thing happened with the state beaches. It’s one thing to walk in and say, ‘we pick up a lot of cigarette butts.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘we picked up this many cigarette butts.’ It also targets where problems are. Years ago, the rings that six pack sodas came in, those were a major problem. You don’t see them hardly anymore and that is one of the reasons, because you can point out that it’s a problem, we’re picking up this many of these.”
While Bill says he’s managed a lot of different beaches over the years for the annual event, he now focuses on Barrington Beach. “It has become our target. That’s what we do and we do it three times a year. In May, November, with Save the Bay, and it’s almost always the third Saturday in September for the International Coastal Cleanup with Audubon,” he says. “For the Audubon one, for International Coastal Cleanup, I maintain my own list. They’ll put the website up and if somebody signs up on that, they just relay the information to me but I manage it. I take the signups, I keep track of it. Save the Bay, they administer it themselves. It goes to them, if you wanted to sign up with me, I’d have to tell you to go to the website or email them, they maintain the list and they do that part completely. All I have to do is the get my box of supplies and I just have to show up and manage it.”
“When you are managing other volunteers, what’s the process? What’s it like to be a volunteer managing other volunteers?”
“For International Coastal Cleanup, we put up posters that say we’re looking for volunteers. We’ll go to supermarkets and put up signs that say we’re looking for volunteers. I will call the local paper and ask them if they can do something for us and they are always willing to do that. Audubon puts out the thing and what it says is, ‘if you want to sign up, contact Bill and Deb Dwyer,’ and there’s a phone number and an email address. So I have to maintain a list of who I have coming, I have to send them directions on where to go, what to bring. For the International Coastal Cleanup, I also have to manage estimating and getting t-shirts for them, so I try to get everybody to get me a size ahead of time. When we actually go to the beach, my car will be there with sign on it and then we get everybody around and I give them a talk on how to stay safe, what they should be doing. I say, ‘don’t pick up stuff that’s too heavy. If you get something that has fluid in it and it’s sealed, don’t open it up because you could have something very caustic in there. Leave natural stuff alone, if it’s a dead crab or a tree branch, you know, that’s natural, leave it there. If it’s a hunk of pressure treated wood, you can bring that back.’ And then we make sure that we have release forms from everybody. This is the first year that Audubon had to do release forms, it’s the nature of…it’s never been a problem until something happened and so now we do releases. Save the Bay’s been doing it for as long as I can remember. I also, for the international cleanup, have to explain how to tabulate, if we have single people, put them in groups, say there’s three, one to hold the bag, one to pick up trash, one to write down. A lot of times it ends up being twos, one person holds the bag and picks up and the other person writes down. So at the end, you have to take care of getting all the sheets back and making sure that the tabulation sheets…that they put their information on it and stuff like how far they went down the beach and things like that. In general, somebody needs….just kind of administer the whole thing. Nobody has ever said, ‘why should we listen to you?’ Most people are happy they don’t have to do that, all they have to do is show up and pick up stuff.”
Bill and his wife have been managing coastal cleanups every year for some time, but they don’t restrict their involvement to cleanups alone. They are heavily involved in a number of activities throughout the year. Bill says, “I’ve gone to events and presented on behalf of Audubon. We’ve manned booths for them at events where people come by and we talk to them about Audubon or Save the Bay. We’ve done the same for both. The bottom line is you can’t save the whole planet at once so I’m trying to save it a piece at a time. And these are the two organizations in Rhode Island that are the best at saving the planet a piece at a time. Save the Bay is more bay-orientated and Audubon is more nature-orientated but they are both working on saving the planet one piece at a time. For Audubon, I do every event that’s at the environmental education center, and then I do the Halloween hike in Seekonk. For Save the Bay, I do whatever comes up that they need done that we can fit in. We did the eel grass transplant program and we’ve represented them at a number of events. I’m also a photographer for both of them. If you happen to see the raptor weekend poster, all but one of those pictures were from me. Save the Bay, that’s one of the things I do for them. If they need pictures…they had the beach slam in Barrington, for the second year. Both of the years, I’ve been the photographer for half a day of the event.”
Bill adds that his natural talents are put to good use, whether it’s working as a greeter, salesman or audio technician. “At many events, I’m what they label as the greeter, but it depends. It’s morphed because it appears that I have a knack for selling stuff. So as a greeter I was around the front, I’d direct people where to go, answer questions, but I was around the front, where the admissions table was. So the first year that they did the promotion of half price admission, I started talking to people out front and then I never left there. We shattered the record for the most memberships to Audubon sold in a day. It was cool. So now I tend to do some of the sales out front a lot. It depends on what else comes up. They had somebody else who used to do the audio but I can figure out that sort of stuff and there was nobody else around to do that. So this year I ran around setting up the audio.”
Save the Bay and Audubon both put a lot of emphasis on educating the public, something that Bill says he “really likes” about both organizations. As an example, he describes the yearly Halloween hike put on by Audubon. “They do Mother Nature’s Halloween Hike and the kids come dressed up. You can go on any number of Halloween hikes or Halloween events in any number of places and you get to see scary things usually and you get a goodie bag at the end and that’s it. This is a different world. Everything Audubon and Save the Bay do is educational and it’s usually educational towards the environment. So the Mother Nature Hike, we put the people in groups and we lead them out through the trails. There are little lights that light the way and maybe ten stops along the way. Each one of them has somebody dressed up as a character, most of the time it’s an animal but occasionally it’s something else. You stop at each spot and that creature tells you about what they do out in nature. I not only lead the groups or organize groups…first, I run around and take pictures…then, I either organize the groups or lead the groups or troubleshoot stuff. One year I was red fox and another year I was…I found out that was not really the thing for me to do. Because a lot of the people who do it have naturalist backgrounds. So for me to learn about the red fox…there’s a spiel they gave me about the red fox but seeing that I had no background…I had to memorize the thing, you know? Because I didn’t have the background to know that. Some of the people are phenomenal at doing that stuff and we found out that I was better off doing other things. Last year, somebody was a tree with all vines growing all over it and that was an awareness of the invasive species, cause the vine were the invasive species that had been coming in. So it really, really does teach…it’s always, always teaching them something…This is how a whole new generation is getting awareness of what’s going on. Save the Bay does the seal tours, it helps raise money for them but it takes people out and shows them the seals. You don’t just go out and there’s a seal, take a picture. They have a naturalist on board who explains all the information, different types of seals and stuff like that. Everything you do at either Audubon or Save the Bay, you learn something about the environment.”
“How much does it mean to be able to see the results of all your work?”
“That definitely helps but there will be things you do that you don’t see the results of,” Bill replies. “Not direct results, not like, ‘I see the beach has 340 pounds less trash on it.’ That is good, it makes you feel great. But, there are other…working raptor weekend, you don’t see the environment got improved form that but you see that people light up when they see the birds. The kids are so thrilled by the creatures they’ve seen and you know that’s going to stick with them and they’re going to remember that they want those creatures to be around. When you watch in the exhibit hall where the exhibit hall guide will pick up a crab and let the kid touch it, the kid’s just thrilled and now he knows what a crab is, he’s touched it, he knows these creatures are in the water now. He sees the fish in the tanks. Now when he looks at the bay, he’s not just going to see water, they’re going to know that there are these creatures that live in there. Did that environment improve right there on the spot, like taking 300 pounds of trash off the beach? No, but all these people who come through and learn that and learn what’s out there are going to be much more environmentally conscious in the future.”
“You guys keep so busy, with work and all the volunteering, it’s very time consuming,” I note. “How do you make it work?”
“You actually end up with a couple of hectic months,” Bill admits. “The fall tends to be busy. You’ve got the beach slam, you’ve got raptor weekend, you’ve got International Coastal Cleanup, you’ve got the Halloween hike and they all come in a pretty fair space of time. Then you have shows and stuff pop up in between. Some of the retired people are guides in the hall, they’re there one day or two days every week. No, for us, it’s not that bad, we tend to be more of the events and stuff like that. We don’t go and do something every week, we simply do not have the time. It’s nice cause Audubon knows, I tell them to just send me the dates for everything at the environmental center and the Halloween hike for next year and I’ll put it on my calendar.”
Bill adds that one of the most important things for people to remember is that there are many small opportunities and volunteering doesn’t have to be at a large-scale event. He says, “You can go to Audubon and be trained as an exhibit hall guide or a trail guide and you can say, ‘I’m going to do this one four hour shift a month.’ If you get fifty people that will do one four hour shift a month, you’re good. Nobody should be eliminated and nobody should think they can’t do this because they can’t put in twenty hours a week. None of these organizations expect you to put in twenty hours a week. If you can give them four hours a month, this is great. And they’ll train you to do the stuff, too. There’s classes on how to be a guide and stuff like that. Or you can pick what your strength is and what you’re comfortable with. If you like to be an exhibit hall guide and you think that’s what you’d like to do, sign up for that. If you’d like to do a craft table, you want to work with kids and help them draw and make the owl pin or put beads together, sign up for that. If you want to help out in the store, one Saturday for half a day a month, sign up for that. If you want to go to Save the Bay and stuff envelopes, Save the Bay gets people to do envelope stuffing for some of their mailings. If you want to be out of the public eye and sit there at a table and put fliers into envelopes, you can do that. Every little bit helps. If they lost all the people who give them four hours a month, it would be a problem. This is not your full time…if you’re retired and you can put in ten hours or sixteen hours a week, that’s awesome. But if you’re working full time and have chores at home and stuff like that, you can give a few hours a month. That is essential.”
“You can make a difference in a lot of things without having to devote your entire life to it. A lot of people don’t think of it that way,” Bill adds. “I think the biggest thing is you need to be willing to help and willing to give some time. The organizations that need help, anything from the environmental ones to the church…we help out the church, too…I can’t do every event at the church but I did four hours this Sunday and next weekend they’re having the bazar, I’m not having anything to do with that. Somebody else can take care of that. So you know, people need to realize that nobody is going to demand you show up ten hours a week. If you show up four hours a month, they’re just going to say, ‘thank you very much, we really appreciate it, you made a difference.’ And people need to realize that they can make a difference with a few hours a month.”
During all of his volunteer work, Bill has encountered an increasing number of people who are giving those hours and making a huge difference. When we spoke, he had just run another Barrington Beach cleanup, one which saw 118 people pick up 349 pounds of trash. “The good news is people are becoming more aware that the trash and stuff is a problem. Twenty years ago we never would have gotten 118 volunteers. The awareness has been raised a lot and especially in the younger generation.”