Conservation Conversation: Volunteers make the world go ‘round

By Vanessa Moberg, Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society –

Volunteers are important. Really important.

Conservation Society volunteers Teresa Donck and Rita Giesbrecht with staffer Mary Forbes after picking up litter in downtown Williams Lake on Earth Day 2017. Photo: Vanessa Moberg

Renowned author and political scientist Robert Putnam has suggested that social capital – defined as civic engagement, cooperation, trust amongst citizens, and working towards the common good – is critical to our democracies, economies, and societal health and well-being.

It is also argued that not-for-profits – and the volunteers that run them – are the backbone of social capital, which is essentially saying that volunteers are critical to societal stability. That’s a really big deal.

I’ve been lucky enough throughout my career to work for many different not-for-profits in the sectors of literacy, nursing, computer refurbishing, tourism marketing, and conservation. In every case, I encountered the kindest, most dedicated volunteers.

Take for example one board chair who, whenever I called him, was always doing something selfless. “What are you doing today, Boyd?” I’d ask. “I’m at the hospital giving out pillows to heart patients. But I have a moment. What do you need?”

The next time I’d call him and say, “Boyd, I can hardly hear you. Where are you? ”

“Oh, I’m on the side of the highway picking up litter.” When Boyd was diagnosed with stage four cancer, he continued volunteering for years afterwards, right up until about a week before he died.

Then there was the chair of the board at Cruise Newfoundland and Labrador, who also happened to be the Mayor of St. John’s, Dennis O’Keefe. He was understandably a very busy man, but never once turned me away from his door, and instead, welcomed me in every time. He was so good to me, in fact, that I started calling him Dad 2.

There was also my real dad who just happened to serve on one of my boards. He attended meetings, provided advice and support, partnered with us on several projects. I learned a lot about him being privy to his professional life. (Happy retirement, Dad! T minus two months!)

Volunteers come in many forms. Some are retired and have time to spare, but may not have a lot of money to give. Others may be paid by their own employers to hold a board position, but they must tear themselves away from what is already an impossibly busy schedule to do so. Time is always their gift. And time is a precious commodity.

There are also many people I’ve encountered over the years who I would call quasi-volunteers; those who’ve chosen a career based on passion, not the paycheque. Educated up the ying-yang and able to make six figures if they wanted to, they find more satisfaction in taking a sizable pay cut to work for a cause that means something to them. While not exactly volunteering, it’s meeting volunteerism halfway. They choose “just getting by” over “Fiji was divine.”

Within just the past year at the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society, I’ve witnessed our volunteers picking up litter, writing letters, organizing guest speakers, repairing bikes, attending meetings, picking veggies, teaching children to make crafts from recycled materials, turning compost, hosting “quiz shows” for middle-schoolers, gathering boughs and pine cones for our holiday event… I could go on and on.

One of our unpaid board members hosted our paid staff to a pizza party at his house. How’s that fair? Sure, as a board member he gets to tell me what to do, but he also has to listen to me drone on about the balance sheet. Even I don’t like to listen to me talking about the finances.

So why do these people do it? They might get an honorarium once in a while, a new bullet point on the resume, or a freshly baked cookie at a meeting. I think I’m a good baker, but not that good.

I think they are driven by an innate desire to put something or someone else before themselves. To spend an hour with a lonely senior citizen. To make the world cleaner one bag of trash at a time. To foster one homeless dog. Tutor one child. Clean out one birdhouse. Serve one bowl of soup.

Volunteers know that the cumulative effect of these tiny acts of selflessness have the power to change lives and – according to Ivy League experts like Putnam – make our society as a whole a better place to live.

So, to all the volunteers out there, as we approach International Volunteer Day on Dec 5, thank you for your dedication. Thank you for caring. We see what you do and we are humbled.

For more information on Water Wise or Waste Wise and any of our school and community programs, contact the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society at sustain@ccconserv.org or visit the website at www.cconserv.org.

Vanessa was living and working in Newfoundland & Labrador until a Cariboo man, local filmmaker Robert E. Moberg, stole her heart in 2014.Interested and involved in environmental causes all her life, she was tickled to be offered the position of Co-ordinator with the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society in late 2016.

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