It's been a year since starting Prismatic Planet and posting my first Human Nature blog. When I wrote that, I mentioned that I wanted to use this site to learn more about the planet and share that knowledge with you. I also mentioned that in addition to researching and writing for this website, I was also an active environmental volunteer. That's still the case today, and I realize I haven't talked much about it here. Which is kind of odd since one of the best ways I engage with something I want to learn more about is to actively do that thing. I imagine such is the case for a good number of people out there.
So, I want to take this one-year anniversary of Human Nature to do just that. I want to share with you what I, a human looking to help and learn, have benefited from by volunteering for the environment. Since volunteering is not limited to work for the planet, my points here won't be specific to environmental volunteer work, though I may cite my experiences. Here's hoping by the end of this, you'll feel empowered to get out there and help, both for a cause you believe in and for your own personal growth.
Let's dive in!
The First Hurdle
Actually...hold on just a moment. I want to pose this thought to you first.
The biggest battle any of us face is just showing up.
Whenever I'm trying to convince myself to try something new, even in the case of volunteering for something I'm genuinely interested in or excited for, the absolute hardest part of doing that is showing up. Once I'm there, I have no problem giving it my all. It's that first step that's the breaker.
What's fantastic about volunteering, even more than trying something new on your own, is that someone is there with a plan for you already. By simply letting someone know you'll be there, someone will already know where they want you to help out. In the case of volunteering, showing up is essentially the entire battle. At least when you're starting out.
So break that mold. Show up. I know you can do it.
A Social Feeling
When I started volunteering, I was fully expecting to be doing a lot of work on my own. And, to be fair, that's a true statement, especially in 2020 with heightened awareness of our social space. What I didn't really account for is that you don't need to be constantly engaged with others for work to feel particularly social. This is a part of why I'm skeptical of other lists of volunteering benefits. The ways I read it portrayed are as a constant social engagement and, frankly, I think I would find that exhausting.
So here's an introvert's observation. There is an unexpected togetherness that emanates from a group with a shared goal or interest. When I show up to a shift, we meet in a wide circle, minding our distance, and listen to what we'll be doing for the day. We also take this time to bring each other up to speed on various new things going on around the arboretum. And not just events, but people spotting rare plants or sharing the results of recent projects in the area. It's kind of weird, since that sounds like a standing report, but these people aren't here to get paid. They're just genuinely interested in these topics.
This doesn't last long before we're moving out to a work site to do some, well...work. In earlier years, this could be as social an activity as you'd like. This year, we're generally spaced apart from one another, but previously, you could easily buddy up with someone else and work together. It doesn't have to be constant chatter either, just agreeing to split work or share resources or time workloads. I definitely talked to others when working together, but even without that being a constant factor, I feel socially engaged.
I feel helpful to others.
In a way, that's probably why we evolved to be as social as we are. Conversations are certainly an aspect of being social, but helping others, that moves the needle from being to feeling for me. Volunteering is a fantastic way to feel a part of a social humanity.
Educational, Even Career-Enhancing
If you know me (and this site), you know this one was bound to show up. I'm a lifelong learner. Even in how I choose to relax, I try to find activities that make me think or do something. If I'm going to be spending time helping a cause, one of the best ways to keep me engaged is going to be around having some type of learning aspect associated to it. Volunteering fills this niche for me really well.
I've volunteered a bit before my work with the arboretum, but I wouldn't have called myself an active volunteer by any means. I was always working toward some credit for school. Nowadays, those quantifiable credits don't exist, and I'm volunteering on my own terms. This difference drives me to consistently show up, not just hopping from one volunteer gig to another where it was most convenient to me. This consistency resonates with other volunteers.
I imagine this is similar wherever you can volunteer. If this isn't the case, the project may just lack good experience or is relatively new, but there is usually a professional or subject matter expert leading the volunteer group. These people are the ones who make sure the people who show up have things to do so no one is confused and everyone makes the most of their time. I can say that while they're enthusiastic in general, they are particularly excited about new regulars!
When someone new shows up and are genuinely interested and work hard, that gets noticed be people invested in growing the volunteer group. Not just in quantity, but in quality. They want to invest in your knowledge so that others who join later can look to you as an expert too. After I was showing up for a few months, I noticed this shift in how people were treating me. That isn't to say they were not initially nice, just that they started pointing out various plants to me, letting me know about certain frog or bird calls, and special characteristics about different ecosystems as we walk.
It would be really easy for them to just let me know the minimum I needed to know for the day's work and leave it at that, but they want to invest in dedicated people by helping them learn the ropes beyond just the day-to-day tasks. They can't know if you want to be a leader, but they know that you show up consistently, so at the very least you care.
This is a key to unlocking a quality education while volunteering.
Prior to the modern education system, humans learned things they didn't know by working with someone who did. They would find an expert to apprentice with. There was no classroom aside from wherever doing the work actually took place. That's exactly what happens when a volunteer group finds people who are interested and dedicated to a cause. These are experts and enthusiasts with a collective decades-worth of knowledge and experience ready to pass to you if you are willing. And while there is always room for getting a degree, spending years actually doing what you want to do with professionals in the field gives you both the experience and network that often actually lands you jobs.
So yeah, it's a bit of a longer term aspect to volunteering, but it is certainly educational and, when you play your cards right, can give you the experience and inroads you need to do something you love.
Breaking Vicarious Cycles
I had initially wanted to call this one "finding a purpose," but found that to miss the mark on what I wanted to convey. While it is true that doing something for a cause you believe in can give you a sense of purpose, that is highly subjective to how you personally feel fulfilled. Instead, I'm going with "breaking vicarious cycles" which probably warrants a definition of vicarious. Let's blend that with some context and an example.
It's very easy in the age of the internet to experience things in a secondhand manner. When you follow someone online who does a lot of traveling while simultaneously really enjoying the idea of traveling yourself, you are vicariously experiencing travel through that other person. There may be many reasons for you to do this. Maybe you don't have the financial or physical means to travel to a certain place. Maybe there's a sense of fear in the act of traveling. Maybe you just don't want to deal with the hassle. Regardless of your reasoning, you've found yourself liking something, yet only experiencing that something via someone else's experience.
This isn't a guilt trip for following people who do exciting things or activities that you enjoy. I do that too. And, heck, seeing parts of the world currently inaccessible to you for the price of internet and a smartphone is pretty astounding. This is more for when you do have the means to experience something and you choose not to because you have a vicarious experience buddy in its place.
I'd like to posit that volunteering is a great way to get around this behavior. It's a low risk, low commitment way to experience something within your means that you really want to do. Maybe not at the level of say sky-diving or things like that. Though, maybe there's some organization out there looking for people to hold tools to measure changes in air quality while falling at terminal velocity (I just wouldn't count on it)!
Thinking a little smaller, once upon a time, I really wanted to try kayaking. I was wanting to try it on a trip in the future, but had no experience doing it and was afraid it wouldn't be the activity for me. In order to give kayaking a try before committing to paddling out to an island off the coast of New Zealand, I found a river cleanup volunteer project in Chicago. All I had to do was show up. I was given safety gear, kayak and paddle, and a group instructional lesson in exchange for helping clean up the Chicago River. Not only did I get to help the environment, but I got to try something I'd never done before to see if I liked it.
Which I totally did enjoy, and did end up booking a few mile kayak trip off the coast of Auckland!
Prior to this, I had heard friends and colleagues talk about how much they enjoyed kayaking. I'd relish in their stories of paddling on the open water or down wild rapids. Despite enjoying their stories, I never wanted to spend money on lessons, and having never tried it, also never wanting to do anything too risky. That's a lot of never-ing. I wanted to change that and found a volunteer opportunity that helped me break that vicarious cycle.
Get Out There!
Honestly, just get out there!
Volunteering has opened both doors to opportunities and my mind to new possibilities that I would not have thought possible before. I'm sure there are many other benefits to volunteering out there. My experiences are just that: my experiences. What I'm sharing here are the biggest benefits that I've felt, and while I'm sure you can feel them too, there may be many more positives right around the corner that resonate more thoroughly with you!
Bringing this back around to environmental volunteering, there are so many aspects to get into depending on your interests and location. If you're interested in working around water, beach and river cleanups are happening all the time. If plants are your speed, what I do with natural areas management has a plethora of activities from invasive removal to seed collection and cleaning to prescribed burns. If animals pique your fancy, there are wildlife monitoring activities and rescues abound in need of good help. Or maybe you would rather flex some indoor skills, which there are usually some data entry, community management, and even website development opportunities out there. I'll provide some links here to tools for finding volunteer programs near you.
So I encourage you to show up. Try something new that you've been putting off for a while. Learn from your peers. And remember, all of these things, these benefits, are in addition to helping a group or cause that needs help. While volunteering is often framed as giving time and effort for nothing in return, I've found that to be far from the truth. The people you meet, the things you learn, and the experiences you gain are not nothing. In fact, I'd probably call that living. In exchange for helping, you may not get a paycheck. But you do get, in many ways, a much fuller human experience.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.