One important part of my job is education, internally and externally. Receiving volunteers is a great way to spread the message about the natural world.
I have to remind myself of the dual purpose of volunteer partnerships. I’m a pretty direct, task-oriented person. Working with many non-profits over the years, I’m often frustrated by the delayed events, extra administrative work, and “inefficient” outcomes of most volunteering partnerships. But because I don’t lean on volunteers for the bulk of my “doing” work, I instead try to view the partnerships as mostly educational. It is an invitation to wonder, a relationship with natural communities and organisms that usually go unnoticed. If we happen to some tasks accomplished, that’s a bonus!
We recently hosted a cadre of Boy Scout families to help with a tree planting project. Their presence lifted my spirits, and I hope they enjoyed the fresh air or learned something in return.
I also love partnering with Lindenwood Conference and Retreat Center, where groups integrate service-learning in their retreats. We had some very energetic young folks assisting with a roadside trash clean-up and a prairie restoration experiment.
Having the privilege to be immersed in the field I am, I usually forget where most people are in regards to ecology. I was rambling on about prairie ecology and prescribed fire for several minutes. A young man nodded thoughtfully and replied, “Hmm. I didn’t even know there was more than one kind of grass!” Just think of all the amazing relationships and wonders he has yet to be awakened to.
While working outside, we came across a Midland Brown Snake (AKA De Kay’s Snake). It was the first time some of them had held a snake. We talked about why the snake was out and about (sunning itself) and what it’s relationships might be in the food web.
My knowledge of “herps” (amphibians and reptiles) is pretty limited, so I used that snake sighting to dive into a guide book later that day and learn a little bit more about the species as well.
In the end, we DID in fact get quite a lot accomplished, which was especially gratifying given how time-sensitive some of the work can be for plant establishment.
Working with volunteers is indeed work, but with a little forethought and persistence, the moments of surprise and connection are worth it.