This summer, two hours into a climb up the granite walls of Dorr Mountain, in Maine's Acadia National Park, I came across a rare animal sighting. There, on a heavily wooded trail in front of me I spotted an entire pack of these creatures, carefully grooming, gathering and obviously enjoying themselves.
The creatures were rarer than the American bison. Here were several families, ranging in age from senior citizens to a 4-year-old. Everyone was working to capacity, some covered with sweat and leaves, some with earth, and the 4-year-old with the guts of an earthworm he had found under a rock and dismembered. And they were having fun.
"What you saw," remarked Duane Pierson, executive director of Friends of Acadia, "was a volunteer work crew. Last year, we logged 14,000 volunteer hours, which would have taken seven full-time employees to fill."
Friends of Acadia is a non-profit organization set up to help monitor park activities, to make sure that outside development influences are minimized, and to enhance the efforts of park staff through the use of a vigorous volunteer program. The privately funded group also picks up the entire tab for the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps, which provides youth between the ages of 15 and 18 with full-time summer employment clearing, marking and maintaining trails, and helping with other park activities. For youth with an interest in environmental affairs, you simply cannot beat this experience.
As we emerge from the effects of the "me" generation of the '80s, many families are vitally concerned that their children learn about helping others. Many opportunities exist in our home community to perform volunteer work, but we don't usually think of extending that commitment to summer vacation.
Yet, here on a mountainside, families were working together, laughing, and helping the environment at the same time. Of the 4 or 5 million visitors to Acadia National Park each year, only about 400 take the time to volunteer, according to Meg Scheid, volunteer coordinator for the National Park Service. But, those volunteer hours add up. They have become an indispensable part of the business of park maintenance.
Volunteers remove leaves from culverts, trim bushes and undergrowth, prune branches on trails and do other maintenance chores on the hundreds of miles of park trails. Each crew of eight to 15 volunteers is led by a volunteer, who is usually a local resident.
Many of the volunteers have been happily coming back for years, eager to make their contribution to the environment. Parents I spoke with were pleased with the opportunity to inculcate their children with the value of volunteerism, especially in as striking a setting as Acadia National Park.
One bonus of environmental volunteer work for families is the exceptionally short lead time between application of sweat and results. Unlike tutoring or working in a homeless shelter, the correlation between cause and effect is immediate. Kids prune a branch and the path is clear. They remove a leaf dam from a culvert and water flows. Child development experts like to point out the importance of immediate feedback when teaching young children.
Family volunteering in a natural park setting has another distinct advantage. It teaches youngsters the importance of environmental stewardship, that humans have a responsibility for caring for our natural environment. No amount of classroom learning,reading or watching nature specials can compete with one hour spent on the trails soaking in the lessons through one's hands.
Acadia's experience holds lessons for other environmental groups (and all non-profit agencies, for that matter).
Never apologize for working your volunteers hard. The most insulting thing a non-profit agency can do to their volunteers is have them stand around, hands in pocket, waiting for assignments. Volunteers are staff -- only they are unpaid. Non-profit agencies should treat them with the same respect, and expectations, they hold for their best employees.
An even larger lesson looms on the horizon for those non-profit agencies willing to heed the demographic call. Family time is so splintered in today's mad -- to economic survival and junior's piano lessons, that even family volunteerism is an option many families would welcome.
Smart non-profits will begin to design marketing strategies that involve family volunteer opportunities for their various market segments. Spending quality time together doing good -- for themselves, for their less fortunate neighbors, for the environment -- is a natural way for families to develop strong community values in their children. To contact Acadia's volunteer coordinator, call (207) 288-3338.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.