When Michael O’Keefe approached the staff at Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center, Blue Springs, about becoming a volunteer, he brought with him little more than an interest in his newfound birding hobby and a desire to learn.
“Someone gave me a birdfeeder at some point for Christmas, which led to some seed and a book and trying to learn more,” O’Keefe said. “Next thing I knew, I had an
encyclopedia of birds and then my wife suggested, ‘Well, Burr Oak Woods is just a couple miles away, and they have a volunteer program opening up.’”
From that beginning in 2000, O’Keefe has progressed from birding novice to leading staff volunteers in the center’s bluebird monitoring program and apprenticing in the bird banding program with the Missouri River Bird Observatory, headquartered in Marshall.
O’Keefe is one of approximately 2,000 staff volunteers who work at MDC’s nature centers and shooting ranges, according to Syd Hime, MDC volunteer and interpretive program manager. This volunteer corps is MDC’s “front line of customer service,” whether they’re at the front desk of a conservation nature center or on the firing line of a shooting range, she said.
“We actually have more volunteers than we do employees, so they’re instrumental in helping us reach our goals and support our mission,” Hime said.
While many of those volunteers come equipped with a wealth of conservation knowledge or outdoor skills — either through a specialized education or a lifetime of experience — others, like O’Keefe, come with just the desire to learn and serve.
As long as volunteers bring that desire, MDC can provide the expertise, said Hime. “All of our staff volunteers go through some training,” Hime said. “If they just have an interest, absolutely there’s a place for them. Even in their role as volunteers, they’re learning and growing their skills, just through the interactions with staff, with the public, just being a volunteer. So there isn’t a required knowledge level or skill level to come on as a volunteer, there’s just the interest.”
Falling into Nature
As a girl, Bridget Tam enjoyed the outdoors, especially fishing with her grandfather. But as an adult, her volunteering efforts were focused elsewhere until a requirement for a class at Southeast Missouri State University in 2015 set her on a course to the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center (CNC).
“I’ve volunteered since I was 18, but most of that was in either language or education or youth, and I had never really done anything with the environment or conservation,” said Tam. “I thought, I’m really interested in that, and Missouri is one of the most beautiful states I’ve ever been in.”
Like O’Keefe, Tam had a general interest in nature, but no specialized outdoor knowledge or experience. Through volunteer training and assisting MDC naturalists with their programs, her scope of outdoor knowledge has expanded significantly, eventually making her the go-to volunteer on questions concerning native plants and landscaping.
“You never know what you’re going to learn or fall into,” she said. “And then you show up sometimes and they don’t need help with what you came to help with, but then you end up doing something you had no idea you’d be learning about.”
With her college career complete, Tam is taking her new degree and her experience volunteering at Cape Girardeau CNC and putting them to work in Paraguay with the Peace Corps.
“Luckily, with this volunteer work, they’ve gotten me into a very specific sector, which is environmental conservation, and a specific job, which is environmental education,” she said. “I have my volunteer work here to thank for that.”
Not “Outdoorsy” People
In many cases, the love of the outdoors is passed down from one generation to the next. Cindy Taylor discovered her love of nature without significant influence from her parents — beyond being sent outdoors to play as a child.
“My mom and dad were really not outdoorsy people,” said Taylor, who has been a staff volunteer at Powder Valley CNC since 2000. “As a child, we would go to my aunt and uncle’s farm, and we would fish there. My mom hated it, and my dad would play along, but I don’t think he really enjoyed it. But somehow, I got the bug.” As a Powder Valley CNC volunteer, Taylor’s duties range from staffing the front desk to helping with children’s programs to playing chauffer to Peanut, MDC’s semiretired anti-litter turtle mascot. “She’s the hit of the show,” she said. “I’m
really just the transportation.”
Regardless of what job she’s assigned, Taylor sees it as an opportunity to help others make their connections with nature. “It really comes down to the joy of being in and with nature,” she said. “There’s something special there that a lot of people don’t get to experience, so if I can help someone experience that, that’s a joy to me.”
Baskets and Spoons
The volunteers’ value in forwarding the conservation mission doesn’t stop at the end of the program or when they leave their nature center or range, Hime said.
“I always think of them as our ambassadors in the community,” she said. “They’re reaching people, socializing with people, interacting with people that maybe we are not — their friends, family, and neighbors. I often think of them as the department’s spokespeople within their local communities.”
It was through one of those ambassadors that Linda and Jim Strauch connected with their volunteer home of Twin Pines Conservation Education Center (CEC), Winona. Almost immediately after retiring from their jobs in Illinois and moving to Missouri in 2008, they were introduced to Twin Pines CEC.
“We were here for one day,” Linda Strauch said. “We moved in on a Saturday, and we went to church Sunday morning. The next day, we met a fellow who was taking the volunteer classes at Twin Pines. Since we love the outdoors and had always volunteered at other things, he said, ‘I have the perfect place for you.’”
Less than a week after arriving in Missouri, Linda and her husband Jim were in the volunteer training class at Twin Pines CEC. Experienced hunters and anglers, the two found themselves exploring new outdoor skills, facilitated by the training they received as volunteers.
“I took a basket weaving class at Twin Pines about eight years ago and it just sort of hit a little hitch with me and I just loved it,” she said. “Twin Pines played a big role in my basket making, so now I harvest white oak and make my own white oak strips and weave white oak baskets.”
Taking advantage of the native resources on their 10-acre property near Birch Tree, Linda, with her basket weaving, and Jim, who has become an accomplished wood carver, focusing on spoons and paddles, now lead classes in their newfound skills.
O’Keefe, whose Christmas bird feeder set him on a course that went far beyond just watching birds, encourages anyone with a natural curiosity to consider volunteering, regardless of their level of knowledge or experience.
“I think if you have a natural curiosity, you don’t have to be an outdoorsy person,” he said. “There’s plenty of folks who have interests and specialties that take them to the nature centers and let them work with kids, families, other adults. Whatever their passion is, there’s probably a way to express it with the department.”
Opportunities as Varied as Missouri’s Great Outdoors
Whether you’re a seasoned hunter, angler, or outdoorsperson, or a nature novice, MDC can help you discover nature through volunteering.
But becoming a staff volunteer, like those in this story, entails more than just signing up, said Syd Hime, MDC volunteer and interpretive program manager.
“It’s kind of a formal process,” Hime said. “All of our volunteers have to go through an application and interview process, and there is an expectation of a level of commitment.
“That’s why we call them staff volunteers — the only thing lacking is a paycheck,” she said.
“Once they’re hired, they have to go through a training.” Staff volunteer needs vary depending on the facility, with some going several years before opening the volunteer recruitment. In cases where the local facility has a full complement of staff volunteers, Hime suggests prospective volunteers look at opportunities with MDC-affiliated groups, including Missouri Stream Team, Missouri Master Naturalists, and Missouri Forestkeepers Network.
More information on volunteer opportunities with MDC and partner programs is available online at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZJu.