When my supervisor at the Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City suggested that I develop a youth volunteer program, I was scared to death. I knew what I had done to my parents as a teenager. I had stored dead animals in their freezer to further my own biological and taxidermy interests, marking my packages "hamburger" to avoid alarming my mom. Snakes and other assorted critters were often hidden under my bed for occasional use to scare my sisters. No wonder the idea of supervising a group of teenagers scared me.
The Conservation Department did not have any other youth volunteer program in the state to use as a model, so the nature center decided to model it after the adult program. The new program was advertised in our "Habitat Happenings" newsletter. We agreed to pick five volunteers.
When orientation night came there were nearly 30 young people present. The entire staff was pleased and surprised at the turnout. These kids could be anywhere doing anything but, instead, they wanted to volunteer their time for something they believed in.
When asked why they were interested in volunteering at the Runge Conservation Nature Center, their replies included, "I want to give something back to Jefferson City or my community," "I want to teach people about conservation," and "I want to work for the Missouri Department of Conservation when I grow up."
We soon discovered that all of these youngsters were qualified. Here was a group of kids between the ages of 14 and 17 years old who wanted to do something besides watch television on their summer break, and the nature center staff had the chance to change their lives with respect to conservation and the natural world around them. Instead of five volunteers we picked ten. The next step was training. After a behind-the-scenes tour of the nature center, these kids had to go through seven weeks of training, including two-hour classes every Tuesday evening. During their training the kids had to:
All ten successfully completed their training and were graduated with the adult class in a traditional "Pomp and Circumstance" ceremony. On graduation evening the nature center staff felt like the proud parents of ten graduating teenagers.
As the staff considered how the youth volunteer program should fit into the overall program at the nature center, I called upon my past volunteer experiences, what I liked about them and what I did not like. We decided volunteers like responsibility, being recognized for accomplishments and learning things by doing them. They do not like boring or monotonous jobs and being treated like children. Our youth volunteer program was structured to be rewarding and fun.
Typically, the youths phone the nature center at the beginning of the week to tell us their schedule. A list of projects is ready when they get to the nature center. The youth volunteers work all of our big events, such as the Naturescape Symposium, Earth Day, the Family Fishing Fair and off-site exhibits, such as Kid's Fest and the 4th of July Celebration.
They assist with the Conservation Kid's Club and give presentations and hikes at the nature center and off-site. They also help us with mailings, computer work, preparation for programs and so many numerous little jobs that the staff wonder how the nature center ever got along without them.
Just the other day two busloads of children came from St. Louis. Their leaders came to the front desk asking for a movie, a tour of the exhibits and a hike on the trail. All of the interpretive staff were busy with programs. But the youth volunteers came to the rescue.
Two of the volunteers were in that day doing other jobs and were able to stop what they were doing to assist this group. Volunteers made this group's trip to the nature center more personalized and fun than we ever could have without them.
In their first month after graduating, our teen volunteers worked over 400 hours, which is nearly equivalent to the work accomplished by three full-time employees. The volunteers have a heartfelt interest and concern for our environment and its future and benefit the community by learning about conservation and spreading the word to their friends, families and anybody else who will listen.
The great thing about teenagers is that they know everything (just ask one), so when they are asked to give a presentation on conservation or lead a hike they are not afraid and will give the presentation with zeal and gusto. The nature center staff wishes for some of that extra energy at times. When asked by a local newspaper reporter why they felt it was important to teach others about conservation, a volunteer replied: "Earth's natural ecosystem is being altered, and in some cases, destroyed by man. I think that we should learn to conserve earth's resources and encourage others to do so before it is too late."
Another stated that it " ... is important to teach people about conservation at an early age. If kids are taught to recycle, conserve energy and respect the environment, they will make better decisions as adults." These kids are our next generation and have a lot to offer to their communities. Next time you are in Jefferson City, take a trip to the Runge Conservation Nature Center and meet some teenagers who will change the way you feel about this age group. They sure changed my attitude about teenagers.
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