It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Volunteer World

By Jean Mayer | April 2, 1999
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 1999

To many people, volunteering is a do-something-for-nothing concept. Why would a person want to spend time, energy and sometimes money to be a volunteer? I am now an outdoor skills education specialist, but I began working for the Conservation Department as a volunteer at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center.

The pleasure of volunteering was mine. Any helpful task I accomplished, whether making popcorn for a meeting or giving a snake program for the Kids Club, was highly appreciated. But the rewards went beyond being thanked.

I live in a rural area about 50 miles from Springfield. The thought of driving an hour to volunteer did not seem absurd to me. Emotionally, I was driven! It is hard to express the joy I felt when a child was brave enough to hold a snake for the first time, or an adult thanked me for stopping to answer questions while walking the trails.

Volunteers at conservation nature centers are allowed to find their own niche in the general theme of conservation, whether their expertise is taking photos, growing native flowers or teaching. A day at a nature center might be spent simply walking the trails, interacting with people who use them or answering the phones to sign people up for programs or trying to answer their questions. Other days may be more like this:

At 8 a.m. I head to the back room to gather food for the birds-black sunflower seeds for cardinals and other seed eaters and ground sunflower chips for finches. We use chicken scratch for birds like mourning doves and mammals like chipmunks, stuff a peanut butter/cornmeal paste in drilled holes for the Carolina chickadees and woodpeckers, and put out sugar water for the hummingbirds.

After filling the various feeders by the viewing room, I grab some more ground sunflower chips for the finch feeders located by the large glass windows near the displays.

On the way back with the empty pitcher, I spot an elderly gentleman standing by the front desk. "Can you use some help?" I ask. I get him two copies of Woodworking for Wildlife and discuss how nice the bird, bat and squirrel houses are and how easy the plans are for grandkids to build. He leaves with a smile on his face.

After returning all containers to the back room, I head to the classroom to help set up for "Day Camp Daze" programs, designed for summer day camp groups of 20 to 80 kids of various ages. Today's topic is amphibians and reptiles. It is now 9 a.m. The first group comes at 10 a.m., so it's time to grab the critters.

On the way to the snake room, I spot a young man standing at the desk. He asks me for information about ginseng. I give him what little I can find quickly, get his name and fax number and promise to research the subject in more depth when I get the chance.

I also ask the receptionist if she might be able to get me some information on the wild herb. She assures me she can.

9:45 a.m. and all critters are in place, all help is ready to go, and we wait patiently for the first group to arrive. It is a small group, only 37, and all goes well. The kids have a blast jumping like bullfrogs, trying to regulate their ectothermic body temperature, making origami frogs and looking at or holding several amphibians and reptiles.

Lunch time is usually a period of great camaraderie and story telling, often while watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show.

The 1 p.m. program allows me plenty of time to research ginseng. While in the library, I answer a phone call from a distressed mom wondering how to get a Hercules beetle to let loose of her son's finger.

Another parent calls to ask if it is safe to let her child play outside, since they can hear coyotes at night. I assure her that coyotes would not carry off her child.

The next group arrives 20 minutes late. My opening presentation is cut short, but once again the kids enjoy the program.

After I return the animals to their cages, someone tells me that the rufous hummingbirds we tried to catch the day before are back. I jump into a van with one of our naturalists. Hummingbird banding license in hand, we arrive at the spotter's house where we left a net hanging over the feeder.

I patiently hold one end of a piece of fishing line out a kitchen window for an hour, waiting for the return of the hummingbird. We are rewarded by several long looks at this bird, the color of a new copper penny, that normally is found on the Gulf Coast, but we can't catch the hummingbird.

While there, we make friends with a 14-year-old boy who likes birds. By the time we leave, he is ready to join the local Audubon chapter.

Back at the center, it is now 5 p.m.-time to gather up the information on ginseng and fax it to the visitor. At 5:30 I heave a satisfied sigh, smile and say, "See you next week!" to the manager.

If variety is the spice of life, then volunteering is Texas chili.

I remember a particular child, about 8 years old, who told me when he walked in that "snakes are slimy, scary and no way am I going to hold one, so don't try to make me!" I just smiled and let the child know that I was there to explain about snakes and, afterward, everyone would have the option of touching or holding the snake. Soon, the entire group of children-with one exception-were gently touching the young speckled king snake I'd brought in.

When I finished my explanation about the role snakes play in the ecosystem, why snakes shed their skin and how the numerous vertebrae with attached ribs help them be so flexible, I let the kids experience the pleasure of holding the snake, each one marveling at how calm and gentle it was.

After several children had their turn, my uncertain skeptic slowly moved a finger toward the snake and touched it. "It really isn't slimy!" he said. "Maybe I could hold it if you would hold the head for me."

Smiling, I took the snake from the last little girl and held the head while my brave young friend gently cradled the snake's body.

"Wait till I tell my parents-they won't believe me!" he said.

Later, as I was helping clean up after giving a talk to another group, a small voice said behind me, "Jean, can I say goodbye to the snake?"

I'm working as a full-time outdoor skills education specialist now, which still puts me in touch with kids and education, but I found my niche in conservation as a volunteer. You can't ignore and you never forget the good feelings you get from helping people.

Volunteer Naturalist Program

The Conservation Department's Volunteer Naturalist program is designed to reach people on a personal level with a conservation message. Some duties may include patrolling trails, answering questions, staffing the visitor information desk, presenting interpretive programs or assisting with projects that require specific expertise or talents.

Volunteers are expected to present a professional image and meet certain requirements. At the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, for example, volunteers must be at least 18 years old and be Missouri residents. They are also required to:

  • attend 32 hours of training spanning approximately 8 weeks;
  • work a minimum of 24 hours in each of 2 consecutive months;
  • wear a uniform at all times when on duty;
  • attend all meetings held for volunteers.

Volunteer opportunities are available at many Conservation Department facilities, including those in Springfield, Branson, Jefferson City, St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Joseph.

Age limitations, hours of training and minimum number of hours spent working may vary depending on the program. For example, one nature center requires 24 hours of training and has a youth (ages 14-18) volunteer program that requires a minimum of 6 hours worked each month.

People interested in becoming conservation volunteers can contact any of the following offices:

Springfield Conservation Nature Center4600 S. ChrismanSpringfield, MO 65804(417) 888-4237
Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery Visitor Center483 Hatchery RoadBranson, MO 65616(417) 334-4865
Runge Conservation Nature CenterP.O. Box 180Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180(573) 522-4312
Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center11715 Cragwold RoadSt. Louis, MO 63122(314) 301-1500
Rockwoods Reservation Visitor Center2751 Glencoe RoadGlencoe, MO 63038(314) 458-2236
August A. Busch Memorial ConservationArea-St. Louis Regional Office2360 Highway DSt. Charles, MO 63304(314) 441-4554
Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center1401 NW Park RoadKansas City, MO 64015(816) 228-3766
Northwest Regional Office Visitor Center701 NE College DriveSt. Joseph, MO 64507(816) 271-3100



This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer