People Power

by | Nov 1, 2009 | People

FOR 10 DAYS LAST FALL, Phillippa Francq of St. Petersburg, Florida, hiked muddy hills in the Puerto Rico rainforest, taking measurements and recording data. Francq, 70, joined other volunteers on an Earthwatch expedition helping to research sustainable tropical rainforest management. A veteran of many such trips, Francq came away from this one feeling as if she had contributed to something significant. “The forest is very denuded in Puerto Rico, and this project is helping it grow back. Just look at the impact it is making and how it is changing the landscape.”

Kate Quinn, manager of volunteer programs for Earthwatch, found it exciting to observe different growth patterns in project test plots and was impressed with items made from the sustainably harvested blue maho and mahogany trees. The work can be a little rigorous, she admits. But there is a free day and recreation on-site, including evening slide shows, music and dancing. Volunteers stay in tents on a covered platform or in a bunk house and have access to flushing toilets and running water. There is a full kitchen.

Francq enjoys the work on these projects but also the other volunteers. “It is generally all ages, from people older than I am down to teenagers. I love the moment when the team first meets. There is a sense of anticipation. We’ve come halfway around the world to be in this place at this time, and we’re all interested in the same subject. It’s an immediate connection.”

In 2009, Earthwatch sponsored more than 120 research projects in 38 countries and 20 U.S. states. Since 1971, volunteers have contributed $72 million worth of time to scientific fieldwork. Those who go on an expedition often return for another, Quinn says. “They find that this is the new way they want to see the world.”

Combining volunteering with travel, dubbed “voluntourism,” has clearly caught on. In 2007, more than 3.7 million Americans volunteered at least 120 miles from home, according to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, while another 1 million volunteered overseas. More than half of respondents to an MSNBC and Condé Nast survey expressed interest in volunteering on vacation, and 95 percent of volunteer travelers intend to do it again. Whether they come out of a desire to give back and make a difference or because of a connection to a particular cause, volunteers like Francq say they feel a sense of satisfaction, of having done something meaningful.

With demand on the rise, David Clemmons, founder of, says opportunities for volunteer travel have increased as well, perhaps as much as a hundredfold in the past five years. The types of offerings have greatly expanded, too, with a wide array of activities and everything from luxury accommodations to roughing it, in nearly every corner of the globe.

The Sierra Club offers some 90 service trips each year, many that involve removing invasive plants or planting natives. These outings contribute around 47,000 hours of labor annually, valued at $450,000. A typical project includes four work days and one day off. The club provides a trip leader, cook and accommodations, often at a campground.

The Sierra Club offers a service trip to Martha’s Vineyard, where partnering organization The Nature Conservancy owns a 90-acre farm. Trip leader Sandra Raviv says a typical work week includes a couple of days in the nursery, weeding or collecting seeds, then a few days removing non-natives around the farm or other locations there.

“I think most people who come on the outings enjoy meeting other people of like mind,” Raviv says. “Most everyone shares a love of the outdoors and a desire to preserve what we have. I have gone back a couple of times, and you can see a difference in areas where previous work was done.”

Now in its 10th year, the Vineyard trip is quite comfortable by Sierra Club standards, says volunteer trip leader Kermit Smyth, since participants stay in a farm house. Smyth believes in providing a variety of work, including chores for those less physically able. Trips come together quickly in terms of shared interests and people feeling at ease with each other, so he can often stand back and lets the group figure out how to work together.

“The finishing of good, hard work is very satisfying for people, and they enjoy that aspect,” he says. “People see this as a vehicle to give back and also to see another place. Sierra Club leaders are usually knowledgeable about a place, and that contributes to what you take away from a trip.”

Volunteers who take another Sierra Club service trip to Point Reyes, California, participate in an ongoing effort to remove  ice plant and cape weed from the bluffs and European beach grass from the dunes.

“This takes a special type of person, someone willing to spend their vacation doing something to renew themselves and give back. But it can be incredibly rejuvenating,” says Didi Toaspern, who chairs the service subcommittee of Sierra Club national outings. Trip leaders recognize that people are on their vacation and so accommodate an individual’s work pace and comfort level.

For those unable to commit a week to the Sierra Club, Point Reyes has twice-monthly, staff-led workdays, says Sierra Club volunteer Harriet Dhanak, and tries to accommodate drop-in travelers. “The park lacks funds, so they need volunteers. I think it’s a wonderful way to introduce people to conservation; it’s very hands-on.”

There are many other opportunities to work for a few hours or a few days while traveling. The national park system, for example, relies heavily on volunteers. In fiscal year 2005, 137,000 volunteers system-wide provided 5.2 million hours of work worth $91.2 million.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area enjoys one of the largest and most vibrant volunteer programs and welcomes drop-ins. Last year, 22,121 volunteers put in 414,000 volunteer hours there, equivalent to more than 200 full-time employees, says Terry Kriedler, volunteer manager for the park. “Without those extra hands, our habitats would not be coming back and visitors would not be served at the level they are now. Folks can’t necessarily give us every Wednesday morning, so we let them come whenever they have time. Staff members understand the importance of working with volunteers and creating opportunities for them in the park.”

Golden Gate is a collection of sites along 60 miles of coastline near San Francisco, including Alcatraz, Muir Woods and the Presidio. According to staff member Chris Powell, many volunteer opportunities involve removal of nonnative plants, planting natives or working in park nurseries.

“For people who work in an office or live in an urban environment, this is a great way to reconnect with nature,” Powell says. “If you can drop in for a few hours, that is great. We offer a variety of chores based on people’s physical ability and desire.”

He agrees that, without volunteers, not nearly as much work could be done. “Every individual who comes out doubles or triples the work we get done in the park.”

On Sunday mornings, teams remove invasives, plant natives and collect seeds at various locations. Invasive plant patrol takes place seasonally on Wednesday mornings. While drop-ins are welcome, calling ahead is advised.

Those planning to visit other national parks or whose travels take them close to one can call the individual park about volunteer opportunities. Some, such as Golden Gate, also have volunteer information on their websites. People looking for a particular type of volunteer work can search the National Parks Service or Take Pride in America websites.

Single-day work experiences also can be found at many nature preserves. Every Saturday morning, Ives Road Fen Preserve in southern Michigan swarms with volunteers. Since 1990, they have been slowly but surely removing invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle.

“Seeing a restored section gives you a sense of what this land looked like many years ago,” says Chuck Pearson, volunteer crew chief. “You get a feeling of accomplishment.” Volunteers also get to see more than 680 species of flowering plants, 177 species of birds and countless butterflies. The preserve provides fresh cookies, too.

Work days are posted on the website, and Pearson says no particular skill is needed. Tools are provided, as are boots and gloves if necessary. Sign-up is available online, and drop-ins are welcome.

While public workdays are uncommon at The Nature Conservancy’s Clymer Meadow Preserve in northeast Texas, preserve manager Jim Eidson often works with master naturalist groups and hosts corporate workdays. These volunteers help with wetland restoration and riparian enhancement projects or work in the preserve’s container nursery and outdoor growing area.

“If anyone is traveling through and wants to volunteer on a drop-in basis, I suggest they call. We can always use help,” says Eidson. “It’s mainly field work, for someone who wants to get dirty and sweaty and worn-out.”

Some major hotels are getting in on the volunteer travel act, offering short-term projects for their guests. The short time commitment and comfortable accommodations offer an easy introduction for those new to volunteer travel. For example, guests at the Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne in Miami can help remove invasive plants and restore native vegetation in Florida’s Bill Baggs Cape State Park. The park, listed as one of the country’s best beaches in 2008, suffered damage from Hurricane Andrew.

Park staff dispense information about the area’s ecosystem and lively history, which includes shipwrecks and pirates. Post-work, volunteers climb the park lighthouse for views of Miami, the Atlantic and, sometimes, manatees. The Mandarin Oriental Miami Hotel on Brickell Key partners with Everglades National Park, where volunteers spend the morning planting native south Florida trees or removing invasive species. After a hotel-provided box lunch, rangers lead a tour of the lush park.

Arizona’s Sonoran Desert inspired the Four Seasons Scottsdale Troon North’s Desert Preservation Hike in neighboring Pinnacle Peak Park. Park Coordinator John Loleit leads the hike, pointing out wildlife, archaeological sites, geology and native plants, including edible and medicinal ones. Participants then plant native species such as buckhorn cholla cactus in carefully chosen locations. Desert plants tend to live a long time, Loleit adds, so volunteers who come back in five or 10 years can see the one they planted.

The chance to see tangible results, say leaders and volunteers alike, is what it’s all about.