Volunteering for rivers can mean many things. Participating in river or waterway cleanups are the most popular types of events, but many other opportunities exist, such as collecting scientific data, working behind-the-scenes, organizing educational programs, raising awareness, or lobbying local representative. Whatever you choose to do as a volunteer, your community will benefit! The inspiring stories of these volunteers show how great a difference one person can make.
River Stories Video Contest, 2008: Volunteers tell their own stories on film
St. John River, Maine, 2006: Experiencing a wild river firsthand
Pete Leki, IL: Restoring a riverand a community
Buddy Roberts, CA: The hidden river
Beth Hayden, MN: Helping riversand your career
Andrew Ossmann, MA: Never too young to help
Cynthia Fox, IL: Keeping the Chicago River clean
River Stories Video Contest, 2008
St. John River sweepstakes winners, 2006
Pete Leki: Restoring a riverand a community
Ten years later, Pete and Riverbank Neighbors have planted native vegetation; stabilized the riverbank, which led to a decrease in erosion and improved water quality; built a half-mile walking trail; and joined forces with a local elementary school to teach children about ecology, local habitats, and community involvement. Locals from infants to 90 years old attend regularly scheduled workdays and feel a deeper connection to the riverand their neighborsas a result.
Buddy Roberts: The hiden river
Inspired, he decided to do some cleaning and plant a garden with his creative writing class, a small project that gradually turned into local activism and environmental involvement. The popularity of the small garden sparked bigger plans for creating a local park. Buddy joined Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) and became a real activist when he helped spearhead a successful effort to prevent fencing along his local section of the waterway. Says Buddy, "Activism is out there. If you see a project and have a vision, theres nothing like going door to door and face to face...and once you establish those relationships, they tend to last."
When North East Trees, a group of designers, planners, and construction teams, used grant money to begin building parks along the Los Angeles River, Buddys dream finally became a reality. Buddy had the honor of breaking ground, and North East Trees planted around 250 trees, created paths, and added benches. The formerly dangerous and unhealthy area, now known as the Atwater River Walk, became the first Los Angeles River minipark, the first of many in a citywide river revitalization program. The popular and peaceful park also stands as a testament to the power of one person getting involved and making a difference.
Beth Hayden: Helping riversand your career
How long have you been volunteering with FMR?
I started working with FMR in September of 1997. It was early in the organization's development, and at the time, there were only two staff. Since then, I have seen it grow into a thriving organization with a great public image; dedicated members, volunteers, and staff; and a continued enthusiasm for the core of their missionthe betterment of one of our greatest national treasures.
What inspired you to volunteer?
Honestly, I was looking for a job. I had been working in the private sector as an environmental consultant, but always knew that my niche was meant to be nonprofit environmental work. I'm driven by mission, not profit margin. But I needed experience to make the transition, and at about that time, FMR was looking for someone to help coordinate and organize their membership efforts. The fit and timing were perfect.
What kind of work do you do for FMR?
My title has been volunteer membership coordinator. But with the length of my tenure and the growth in staff, the type of work has morphed. Primarily, I process incoming membership gifts and renewal letters, trying to keep up the database system and renewing members.
Is there a core of regular volunteers?
For years, I was the only volunteer. Today, there are about five regulars who come into the office. Most of us come every Tuesday night for two to three hours. Yes, we work. But there is also a social element that drives the evening. The organization also employs volunteers and school groups in the field. Those folks keep busy doing things like stenciling river protection warnings on storm sewers, participating in river clean-ups, and planting trees in riparian areas.
How much time do you devote to volunteering with FMR?
I probably average around 90 to 130 hours a year.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your volunteer work with FMR?
When the busy periods of my work and personal life seem overwhelming, it can be hard to drag myself off to another yet another task or obligation. There are definitely times when I ask myself if the return on my investment is worth the schedule juggling and extra running. But when I see the eagles flying over the water, or a heron fishing in the reeds; when I smell fresh water or have a moment to dangle my feet over the side of a canoe into the cooling whirls, that is when I truly realize my reward.
What kind of changes have you seen as a result of your volunteer workin the river, the surrounding neighborhoods, and yourself?
In so many ways, the Mississippi River has shaped the look and feel of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. People recognize it for its aesthetic and industrial uses. But over the past few years I have noticed a greater general awareness towards the protection of our river. The number of people who participate in river clean-ups from all over the metro area continues to grow. I see parents exploring the banks of the river with their children, neighborhoods forming groups with the purpose of decreasing negative impacts on the river from pets, lawn fertilizers, and run-off; and government bodies taking greater interest in replacing highly industrialized riverbanks with restored natural and community areas. I think this is all part of a collective effort. But I also think that groups like Friends of the Mississippi River have made this possible through education and outreach. I'm glad to be a part of that.
Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for anyone who might be interested in getting involved with a local river group as a volunteer?
There is always time to work for something that you hold dear in your heart. I've canoed rivers for years, and it only makes sense that I should be giving something back. Rivers provide a natural element of tranquility that I will always cherish in my life. So I'm working to ensure the survival of the rivers, wildlife habitation, and the recreation and calm that rivers bring to my life.
Andrew Ossmann: Never too young to help
When Andrew pulled on his boots and set out to lend a hand at OAR's 15th annual river cleanup, he never considered himself an activist. The 11-year-old was simply fed up with the state of the environment and knew he just had to do something about it. The sixth-grader had been looking for an opportunity to get involved, and when he saw a flyer about the OAR event, he knew he'd found it.
Andrew spent the day alongside other volunteers pulling debris out of the river. He was amazed by what he discovered: "Tons of broken glass, bottles and cans, plastic bags, plenty of tires, and a car motor." And while it was hard work, he reflects: "It was rather fun, surprisingly. Afterwards, I felt really dirty, but good about myself ...like I had done a good deed by helping the river."
Good deeds are nothing new to Andrew. A Boy Scout who has been involved in other service projects and outdoor activities, he is also an active member of his school's chess team and a trumpet player in its jazz band. Andrew's school has been recycling paper, bottles, and glass for years, so he has some first-hand experience with environmental sensitivity, and a few thoughts on the subject:
"Companies should try to throw away their waste in an environmentally friendly way - and try not to produce as much waste in the first place. Anybody can help somehow. Anyone with a river near them can be an activist. Or you can send funds to help."
Andrew is already looking forward to the next OAR cleanup. Says his mom: "I think they've got themselves a permanent volunteer."
Cynthia Fox: Keeping the Chicago River clean
Now, she is Manager of Stewardship and Volunteer Programs for Friends of the Chicago River, a nonprofit advocacy group. Fox draws on her leadership and organizational skills as well as her environmental background to plan a number of yearly cleanups and events, including the biggest one of all: Chicago River Day. In 2004, this annual workday attracted 3,100 people at 56 different locations along the Chicago River watershed and resulted in the collection of 39 tons of garbage. This feat of coordination involves 100 miles of waterway; gaining permission from about 20 different private, municipal, and city landowners; and organizing all those volunteers!
Keeping volunteers inspired motivates Fox, who feels that " not enough [is] being done to provide a positive experience and something that makes people want to stay with the cause." She emphasizes the importance of providing ownership and responsibility to volunteers while being careful not to burn them out. "If you don't provide a good experience people won't come back. It seems simple but when you ask people to clean garbage or sift through mud for bugs, you need to make sure that there is an element of fun and entertainment about it."
Chicago River Day in 2004 came full circle for Fox. Her father not only attended and saw her in her element, but he volunteered for her as well. She reflects on the rewards of such hard work: "The end result is so amazing that it's worth every minute and second that you would put into making it a success. It's kind of like climbing a mountain On the way up, it can be really scary with lots of things blocking the way but MAN when you get to the top and you can check out the view and look down and see how you got there, it's like you have conquered the world."