Volunteering to go green

Older residents are ready to show the way at new Robinson Nature Center

September 12, 2010|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

It's not that often that a building's final appearance surpasses the perfect rendering an artist creates in advance of a project, but that seems to be the case at an 18.4-acre site off Cedar Lane near Route 32.

The striking stone-and-cedar structure that will become the $18 million James and Anne Robinson Nature Center is set into a hillside, rising from the soil below as if it sprouted there.

And it's equally rare to have highly skilled volunteers in place before a building is finished, but that is the case at the James and Anne Robinson Foundation, which is preparing now for when the county opens its 25,000-square-foot nature center in the spring.

Trained volunteers who are available to share their newly acquired and extensive knowledge of the environment are exactly what a fledgling nonprofit organization is dedicated to making more commonplace in the county.

You could say it's a case of the green leading the green.

The Howard County Legacy Leadership Institute for the Environment, or HoLLIE, was formed in January 2009 to build a small army of volunteers who will convert their training in environmental issues at the local, regional and global levels into community service and activism.

HoLLIE is tailored to members of the 50-and-older crowd who are searching for unique and interesting ways to spend part of their retirement or spare time.

After six weeks of "boot camp," the newly minted leaders are required to put in 150 hours at nonprofit organizations and county agencies as environmental educators, advocates, habitat restorers and citizen-scientists.

Columbia resident Al Pflugrad, one of 27 HoLLIE graduates who have already completed or exceeded their 150-hour commitment, can't wait to be among the throngs and taking in all the nature center has to offer.

"I've done a lot of other volunteer work, but this program has a superb infrastructure and teaches you to be a constructive volunteer with learning objectives," he said. "I mean we had NASA/Goddard scientists teaching us! Doing this was a no-brainer."

A retired systems engineer, Pflugrad put his background to good use in a project that was practically tailor-made for his skills. He worked with the Robinson Foundation to clarify its objectives for collaborating with the Recreation and Parks Department, which will operate the nature center. Out of that came a strategic plan for a "Friends of the Robinson Foundation" program.

"It was important to me to accomplish something tangible," he said.

Other partner organizations include: the Climate Change Initiative of Howard County, the Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, the Howard County Conservancy, the Howard County Office of Environment and Sustainability, and the University of Maryland Extension Service for Howard County.

It's a tough call as to who is happier about his commitment to continued volunteerism at the state-of-the art center — Pflugrad or Marianne Pettis, interim director of the Robinson Foundation.

"Having these volunteers is incredible because we will be heading into a huge expansion once the nature center opens. Everything will just explode," Pettis said.

"Al's work was so important because he helped to bring all the players together with his organizational skills. He understands what each of us can bring to the table," she said.

Pflugrad wants to redirect all credit to HoLLIE, which is "just a spectacular and professional organization," he said Tuesday, after a brief visit to the nature center's construction site.

As he continues to volunteer with the foundation in support of the nature center, he is joined this year by Abel Folarin and Ernest Hilsenrath, who completed their HoLLIE classwork in March. Folarin is setting up a software program to track donations and Hilsenrath is organizing a speakers' bureau.

"What's different about this training program is that it's meant to capture people who want to give back," said Barbara Schmeckpeper, a retired research scientist who helped form HoLLIE.

"You can use your skill set to do something you love doing by taking [your mentor's] vision and making it yours," she said, emphasizing that leadership training is "absolutely essential."

While Pflugrad says he has always been interested in the environment and had already been recycling and using compact fluorescent bulbs, now that he understands "all the connections" between individuals' actions and their impact on the environment — courtesy of HoLLIE's green makeover — he has moved up to having a compost pile and rain barrels.

"I learned when I worked at the National Institutes of Health that a mass-media approach increases awareness, but a one-on-one situation changes people's behavior," said Betsy Singer, who graduated from the HoLLIE program with Pflugrad in 2009 and serves as an advisory board member.

"This is part of the purpose of HoLLIE," she said.

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