Volunteering Builds a Sense of Belonging

written by: Kelley V Phillips, Communications & Outreach Manager

One of the greatest gifts you can give is time. It is impossible to know the amount of time you have, which makes its value incalculable. There are people, though, who give it freely with no expectation of payment or regard for its unknown measure. Who are these heroes? Volunteers.

Volunteering can come in many forms: energy, talent, and expertise to name a few. The underlying theme is community. When community members pitch in and engage with organizations, their work uplifts everyone.

While the essence of volunteerism does not involve payment, that does not mean there is no reward. Helping others boosts self-esteem. It gives confidence, purpose, and sometimes leads to learning new skills. Working with new people builds a sense of belonging, friendship, and social connections. Emotional, mental, physical, and social benefits are certainly worthwhile compensation.

One of my favorite volunteering experiences was at a nature center in San Antonio, TX helping with field trips at a wilderness park. The students on these field trips were from underserved neighborhoods and often had never been in the woods.

On one field trip, there was a girl who was very excited about seeing butterflies. They were her favorite animal, though she did not live in a place conducive to pollinators. She found a patch of flowers loaded with flitting butterflies and tried to reach out and grab one. Instead, I suggested she stand very still and let the butterflies come to her.

She stood next to those bushes for half an hour (which is forever for a 4th grader). Even when her friends were tugging on her shirt trying to drag her back to the bus, she remained statuesque. Though she was surrounded by butterflies, to her (and my) dismay, one never landed on her.

Scuffing her shoes as she walked defeatedly back to the bus, she turned around one more time to look wistfully at the woods…and a butterfly landed on her nose. As its striped wings folded up and down, you could catch glimpses of her eyes as wide and sparkling as her smile.

We took a photo and helped her identify it as a tiger swallowtail. I learned later that she brought her entire family back to the wilderness park that weekend and asked them all to stand around the butterfly laden bushes too.

Admittedly, not all volunteering will create precious memories. But, each opportunity has worth with short- and long-term benefits. A great example is removing invasive plant species. Pulling weeds and cutting down unwanted shrubs gives a sense of instant gratification. You can see the forest floor cleared before your eyes.

In the larger context of east central Indiana ecosystems, removing invasive plant species is critical to restoring forests, prairies, wetlands and other habitats. These plants often out-compete plants native to Indiana (existing in the region before European settlement). Our native wildlife struggle with or simply cannot use non-native plants for food. If invasive plants take over, wildlife are essentially in a food-less desert.

Because invasive plant species spread rapidly, removing them requires persistence, determination, and substantial manpower. For Red-tail Land Conservancy, that means a great need for volunteers to help keep up with the plants’ fast advance.

Those interested in volunteering to support the health of ecosystems can attend Red-tail’s two habitat restoration workdays this fall. The volunteer events are on Saturday, September 25 and Saturday, October 23.  Both events are from 10am-12pm and take place at Munsee Woods, a non-public nature preserve about 15 minutes from downtown Muncie. More event details can be found at www.ForTheLand.org/Events. Registration is not required but recommended.

Whether it is volunteering for a food bank, children’s charity, animal shelter, environmental nonprofit or other organizations, there is something for everyone. Red-tail would like to sincerely thank our volunteers for their donation of time and service. To our friends that have yet to find their ideal volunteer opportunity, we look forward to welcoming you to a world rich in friendship, health, purpose, and community.

Kelley V. Phillips is the Communications & Outreach Manager for Red-tail Land Conservancy. She strives to cultivate wonder in nature and action to protect it.