To volunteer for others, is to volunteer for oneself. To show up to learn about a new habitat, to engage with new flora and fauna, to bond as a team from different countries/states/regions with a common goal, to know that you are not alone in the passion you carry or an experience you want to take home, is to expand oneself for life.
For years, with advertising as my profession, I engaged in arm chair discussions about nature destruction, political failure, lack of action, feeling a sense of hopelessness watching the younger generation hardly step out in nature with most of them even glued to their gadgets – and several other perceptions you possibly end up holding if you approach conservation from a space of `fear’, and if you approach conservation being indoors!
This mindset changed within two volunteering programs that I took up. In interacting with a young bunch of amazing people from across the world, faith replaced fear, and my `hope’ channels just burst open. Here were young people who had volunteered their time and knowledge with rarely any access to internet, newspaper or any form of media for weeks together. With hardly any comforts as they were either deep in the jungles, or working on a remote island, or busy getting their hands dirty in some back of beyond landscape, not letting challenges, politics or any local issue deter them from continuing to do what they believed in! They showed up each morning to do their `little brown job’ – be it in monitoring and assisting scientists in supporting the turtle population, be it in researching on certain flora to provide data to the local government, be it in monitoring coral reefs or be it raising their voices on any issue by engaging in grassroots activism…
So, something much larger fulfills volunteers and keeps them together. The joy of learning together, the joy of failing together, the joy of accomplishing something together, the joy of sharing their life stories without inhibitions because this is now their tribe. They feel safe in this community. The volunteering communities are amongst one of the tight-knit ever – because they survive and thrive together.
To therefore volunteer to any cause, is a way of gifting yourself. I have never felt more enriched, energized and enhanced and once you are hooked to it, you need that periodic dose.
So here is what 3 amazing volunteers I met during the course of the last 2 years, have to say on a few questions I ask them. Each of them started pursuing their passion with the act of volunteering. Today they occupy beautiful spaces in their journey, and agreed to share their stories, their learning and experience of what volunteering did to their lives. We hear it in 3 different voices. I invite you to volunteer a little bit of your time to read it, soak their words slowly, understand how their `little brown jobs’ impacted them, so in turn they could impact the work they do
April Jasmine Burt:
At school I was not a high achiever and spent a lot of time playing truant and misbehaving, I moved out of home at 16 to the city and worked alongside studying drama and English, I eventually ended up getting a job in a bar and was contented enough in this life until I was 19, wherein came a `turning point’. Back to college, I did an access course that allowed me to take up the marine biology degree course at Bangor University, which I completed in 2007. I then volunteered at a dive centre on the Red Sea coast of Jordan and got my diving qualifications. Since I still lacked experience, I volunteered to work as a biologist part-time at the National Marine Aquarium, which got me an internship at a scientific research station in Patagonian Chile. This helped me gain immense confidence in myself and my abilities. My first real job was as a Research Office for a volunteer focused marine project in Northern Madagascar wherein I gained key skills in volunteer management and training. The next job took me to Seychelles as a Science Co-ordinator for a conservation organisation which came with a high level of responsibility – project management skills, volunteers management, report writing and knowledge of marine and terrestrial eco-systems. The next role was as a Conservation Manager with Nature Seychelles and two years later, I have now landed what is unquestionably the best conservation job in this region, and think myself extremely lucky – Scientific Co-ordinator for Aldabra Atoll in the South-Western Indian Ocean, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Academic qualifications are not the over-riding factor in attaining jobs, more highly coveted is demonstration of commitment, achievements and practical understanding of the subject you are passionate about.
I have to give credit to my father for instilling the values of volunteering in me. I remember as a kid, him describing why helping others is equally as beneficial to the helper, and can “pick you up if you’re feeling down and out”. I was reminded of this later when going through some teenage angst (sorry again mom and dad!), and I found that he was absolutely right. There’s a sense of fulfillment that comes with knowing you’re contributing to something larger than yourself, and seeing the work of your labour create a positive impact. Over time, I began focusing my volunteering on conservation and sustainable resource management projects, which I grew to be very passionate about. This led to networking opportunities with like-minded people, and even employment when the competition was high. I am a Conservation Biologist and I work for the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).
My job has 2 parts: Science and Stewardship. During the winter I work in the science department developing biodiversity conservation tools for landowners, and creating regional maps that highlight areas of high conservation value. NCC uses that information to acquire land (through purchase or donation) and we manage those lands as nature reserves. In the summer, I work in the stewardship department, which involves surveying the nature reserves (e.g. carbon inventories, rare species surveys, ecosystem mapping) and then developing management plans to ensure the native biodiversity is protected while also creating places for people to enjoy nature safely.
When we first met in the Seychelles, I was following my hearts desire to do conservation work with or near the Aldabra Giant Land Tortoise. In doing so I was exposed to so much more and the plight of sea turtles the world over, became my focus.
The story previous to our meeting was that of a girl who joined Greenpeace at 13 devastated then by the clubbing of fur seal pups for their pelts. I went on to volunteer at the Greenpeace office in Sydney on Wednesdays for a couple years in the early 90’s and was assigned to the nuclear division that was headed at the time by Jean McSorley. I was born with a disability which caused a lot of pain and discomfort for a good decade until some surgical intervention alleviated much of the difficulties. With this newfound clear head and life pep came some reassessment and a clear desire to return to a country I first experienced at 17 and reunite with my favourite land reptile. I saved for a couple of years to achieve my goal. Everything that has unfolded since seems to be a naturally occurring event that makes my life rich and hopefully I am making a positive difference to something. I started volunteering at Australian Seabird Rescue as a way to keep in touch with my desire to help sea turtles as they have a sea turtle rehab centre and they are 35kms from home. I was doing an Ecology degree at the time of starting there and I really felt the need to learn to be more helpful to the sick and endangered patients. After consulting with a couple of wildlife vets I decided to change my course of study and apply to do wildlife veterinary nursing as my need to be hands-on outweighed the long term goal of the degree. This proved to be totally the right fit for me and I got to intern at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, where I now volunteer once a week as a procedures nurse to maintain and increase my knowledge. I also did a course with ORRCA, an organisation that operates trained volunteers that assist National Parks with whale, dolphin, seal and dugong strandings and rescues. I was certified in Veterinary Nursing just last week, and will return to my work after a short break with my family.
1.What are the challenges one faces while volunteering, and does it make it all worthwhile at all?
April: I have been working in isolated, tropical environments for the past 5 years. Conditions can be hard, and you certainly miss out on family life, friends, freedom and of course all the material things. But being cut off and surrounded by nature is very rewarding, especially when working towards conserving fragile ecosystems, protecting endangered species and overall gaining a better understanding of the natural world. For me personally I get a huge amount of satisfaction and therefore increased well-being from dedicating time to conservation of nature, not to mention living in one of the most outstandingly beautiful and unique places in the world. Overall I remember that humans are part of nature and I feel a need to contribute towards its protection and our understanding of its importance.
Josh: It can be a challenge to commit time and energy to something that might not produce an immediate benefit. This is especially so for the first-time volunteer, myself included. The nature of volunteering is (generally) about contributing without gaining profit, and that lack of tangible value can lead people to question why they should bother in the first place. However, for those who try and stick it out, I think the benefits become very apparent. Time is also a luxury for many people, so it can also be a challenge finding the balance between work, volunteering and everyday life. However, if you can find that balance and commit to a project long enough to witness the fruits of your labour, you begin to realize that the time and energy spent was an investment, and that commitment pays off.
Tiff: I guess the biggest challenge is the lack of funding for rehabilitation nurses, i.e. None. As I have chosen to volunteer as much as I have, I do work 17 paid hours per week in my best friends health food store, I have chosen a frugal existence, but I am lucky to have supportive friends and family. But – my life has a purpose that it never had before!
How important is it to show up on the field VS just reading books / watching television and being aware of the issues/problems etc?
April: Volunteering is an extremely important method of career development via hands on experience in the area you wish to pursue. For me personally volunteering started my career and was a stepping stone to paid work in the conservation/science industry. Volunteers in any sector lend a huge amount of manpower to achieving things that without them might not happen. This is particularly true of wildlife conservation volunteers and from my perspective now over the past few years I have managed to achieve a great deal of important conservation research because of the time and effort of volunteers.
Josh: I believe that in order to contribute to positive change, you have to be engaged with the issues. It’s one thing to know about a subject, and quite another to own it first-hand. Although reading and watching is important for awareness, and often a primer to hands-on learning, it can never replace it. Getting your hands dirty will always provide a perspective that you could not otherwise get, and those new perspectives can often lead to innovative solutions.
3. What is your advice to young people who wish to volunteer but are lost because of parental pressure of having to deliver academically? Similarly what is your request/advice to parents, teachers etc?
April: I would remind everyone that volunteering can be used as a tool for many things; gaining skills, interacting with new types of people, providing a taster for the type of work in that sector, building confidence and broadening your mind to different ways of thinking. Generally speaking most employers look favourably on applicants who have volunteered, it shows commitment and interest and an increased skill set. For anyone setting out to pursue a career in conservation/biology/research then I would recommend you think outside of the box in terms of what you think an employer wants; volunteering is a good start, then look into the job specifications for the type of jobs you eventually would like, start acquiring those skills and others that would be useful in any career, for example first aid, administration, accounts etc. My hope in conservation; small achievements by us may have huge consequences for nature so don’t give it up as a lost cause.
Josh: Find a topic or issue that interests you, get as engaged as you are comfortable with and stick with it. There’s no question that volunteering means sacrificing time that could be spent doing other things, but if you treat it like an investment, it will enrich your life. Not to mention all the other benefits such as boosting your résumé and networking opportunities. Volunteering is also character building, which is something you might not fully appreciate until you become older and can look back on your experiences. All that said, your time is precious, so it’s ok to be strategic about what you volunteer for and the time commitments you make.
Teaching by example is always the best way to reinforce positive values. We all know that to live and thrive in a community – both local and global – requires that individuals don’t look out solely for themselves. Although selfish behaviour is generally discouraged, if children aren’t explicitly taught that they are capable of creating a positive impact, it may never occur to them to try. Once kids reach an age that they can begin choosing how they spend their time, they should already know that helping others is an option. This can be very empowering for young people, and if fostered, can leave a lasting impression.
Tiff: Find that person or organisation that is doing something that moves you in your soul and ask if you can help, join, learn. Your life will be all the richer for it.
My only advice to parents and teachers is to live the message as to best expect the young to follow. Reduce waste. Recycle as much as possible. Do your utmost to avoid single use plastics. Don’t release balloons. Love, love, love what Mother Earth and nature provides as it will only remain if we take care of it.
Volunteering has opened many more paths than I could or would have ever considered if I hadn’t started. Those paths have led to working with amazing people and even more amazing animals, that I never knew existed! Give it a go.
Thank you April, Josh and Tiff for the honesty and clarity in your sharing. Wish you the very best, and I am happy our paths crossed and you inspired me on my `little brown job’!
If the above is an inspiration to take up volunteering, please google in your area of interest. Every field throws up so many options. Some of them are extremely specialised too. Most NGOs are looking for volunteers throughout the year, and offer different levels of learning and different levels of comfort. You can start with something closer to home and for a short period, and if that appeals to you, then stretch the boundaries. As for volunteering, truly the world is one.
Just to kickstart the process, you can look into:
GVI: An international organisation encourages volunteering in different fields across the world, including India. http://www.gvi.co.uk/volunteer-in-india/
ReefWatch India: A marine conservation NGO based in Andamans and run by a passionate marine biologist, Tara Jain, they have opened up positions in volunteering. You can engage in diving, learning about coastal species, and explore a whole new habitat of India while gaining skills and experience: http://www.reefwatchindia.org
And for more inspiration, read this blog: http://floratheexplorer.com/volunteering/. Flora is such an inspiration, and her exploration can make you book your next program immediately.
Hope you are already on google, searching.
Thank you for reading. Please share this with friends and family and inspire them to volunteer as well.