Carl Sandburg, 20th-century poet laureate and national statesman, once claimed, “I’m an idealist. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”
And I took the same attitude as I began searching out some of the region’s premier options for outdoor-volunteer service.
Volunteering takes on a different personality when you step outdoors — especially if you’re in Western North Carolina. From taking care of barnyard goats and neighborhood streams to developing a network of greenways and trails, the region presents a no-excuses situation for pitching in.
Coincidentally, the setting of the first great outdoor-volunteer opportunity is the grounds of Carl Sandburg’s Connemara, the late Chicago poet’s tranquil mountain residence in Flat Rock that’s now a National Historic Site and popular tourist attraction.
The 264-acre estate’s serene backdrop is one of many fringe benefits awaiting the corps of volunteers that Park Ranger Janene Donovan helps coordinate.
“Some of our volunteers claim that the peaceful setting is their personal therapy,” she reveals.
Others simply hang out with the goats.
The Carl Sandburg Home includes the poet’s 1838 antebellum house, plus a dairy-goat barn complex that includes a garden and a herd of about 15. (The poet’s wife, Lillian, raised champion dairy goats.)
Donovan coordinates the group of “barn people” who work with the wily creatures. Those volunteers are “both animal caretakers and park interpreters,” she explains.
Faced with an annual 125,000 visitors to the park from all over the world, the 100-plus army of Connemara volunteers keeps plenty busy. The site’s limited paid staff couldn’t manage without them, Donovan acknowledges.
“We have a team of volunteers that we call ‘rovers’ who rove the park and talk to the visitors,” explains the park ranger.
Outside of working in the barn, volunteer opportunities include becoming group guides for the park’s school tours; staff to help with several of Connemara’s seasonal celebrations; and educators with the popular, youth-oriented Flat Rock’s Exceptional Sandburg Helpers program, or FRESH, which teaches youth ages 10-15 how to take care of the goats.
According to Donovan, adult volunteers help out with the everyday — and sometimes extraordinary — chores around the goat farm and barn.
“Some fortunate volunteers have witnessed the birth of baby goats, bottle-fed the babies and even taken care of the goats at home when the young need special care,” she reveals.
Blazing your own trail
If goats aren’t your thing, maybe gardening is.
The North Carolina Arboretum currently uses more than 150 active volunteers. While administrative-support positions include work in graphic design, event planning and library assistance, the Arboretum maintains several ongoing outdoor-volunteer projects as well.
Volunteers, who are integrated into the arboretum’s regular staffing routine, can serve as garden assistants, guides and youth docents, notes Lynn Garrison, who coordinates the popular flora facility’s nonpaid workers.
“Volunteers,” she proudly adds, “are a huge part of our team and our organization.”
For those who don’t mind breaking a sweat now and then, there’s also the option of helping to mulch garden beds, cut wood and maintain trails throughout the arboretum property, Garrison reveals.
And as for regional trail-maintenance opportunities, Woody Keen says he’s got a walking stick with your name on it.
“Come on out!” proposes Keen, a trail planner whose e-mail username, trailboss, mirrors his passion.
“We have crews working in Bent Creek, DuPont State Forest, Alexander Park, Richmond Hill, Kitsuma trail and other areas in the Pisgah National Forest,” he adds.
Western North Carolina is blessed with an abundance of trails — though Keen is quick to point out that a lot them were poorly designed.
“The majority of existing trails in WNC are remnants of the forest industry,” he reveals. “In most cases, we would have been better off designing new trails with an eye for detail instead of using poorly drained logging roads.”
Keen has been a fixture on regional multi-use trail planning, design and maintenance projects over the years.
“Combined with the impacts from last year’s national forest-fire-suppression efforts and continual budget cuts, agencies like the U.S. Forest Service simply don’t have trail maintenance in their budgets right now,” he points out.
And that’s all the more reason why Keen values volunteers as fellow educators who can teach the merits of wise trail use and design, as well as outdoors etiquette, he says.
Public service, public lands
Will Rogers might have had volunteering in mind when he proposed, “Work to make a living; serve to make a life.”
Accordingly, Keen’s efforts stretch far beyond the trail. “By getting personally involved [and] lobbying our government,” he declares, “we can help relieve the budget pressures from the park service and other public-land agencies.”
While Keen champions multi-use trails suitable for hiking, cycling and horseback riding, the most important thing, he suggests, is just for people to get out in the woods.
“Riding an ATV on a designated trail can be better than sitting around watching TV,” he muses.
Advocating trail-sharing and establishing exclusive areas where motorized ATVs can legally travel may sound like potentially conflicting pursuits, but Keen feels otherwise; he believes in strength-in-numbers — he wants user-groups to work together.
“We all look the same once we take off our cowboy hats and hiking boots,” he ventures.
The Recreational Trails Program — which helps fund states in developing and maintaining recreational trails and trail-related facilities for both nonmotorized and motorized vehicles — brought in $1.2 million last year through its off-road gas tax alone.
Keen points out that a portion of this money is directed specifically to nonmotorized-trail projects that his volunteer crews are currently working on.
Part of the solution
From the backcountry to our back yards, volunteers are making the region a better place to live, work and play.
Mary Jo Padgett, executive director of the Henderson County-based Environmental & Conservation Organization (ECO), praises her organization’s latest bio-monitoring project, where trained volunteers work in teams of four to five to inventory living organisms in local waterways.
In spring and fall, volunteers visit specific Henderson County streams, and using kick nets and other sampling equipment, determine what kinds of plant, insect and other aquatic flora and fauna live there, Padgett explains. The collected data is recorded for later comparisons and ongoing research.
Other volunteer opportunities include the local leg of the annual N.C. Big Sweep, where volunteers statewide come together on the third Saturday in September to clean up rivers, lakes and ocean shoreline.
The program is part of an International Coastal Cleanup event that includes 90 countries; last year, 89 volunteers from Henderson County picked up nearly a ton of trash along 4.5 miles of local streams.
Asheville’s Quality Forward, meanwhile, begins its own version of Keep America Beautiful’s Great American Cleanup next month, with the Great Asheville/Buncombe Cleanup.
The local nonprofit’s Clean Community Coordinator, Leslie Huntley, points out that picking up and disposing of trash moves to “front and center” during the entire month of April.
Volunteers participate in various cleanups in local neighborhoods, along stream banks and around vacant downtown lots. Quality Forward provides bags, signs, gloves and safety vests for folks interested in organizing their own neighborhood efforts.
Huntley claims that local response has always been strong.
“People move to the region because it’s beautiful,” she elaborates. “We have residents who enjoy the value of the outdoors and take pride in [their] responsibility to take care of it.”
• The Carl Sandburg Home in Flat Rock, 693-4178.
• The North Carolina Arboretum, 665-2492.
• The Environmental & Conservation Organization (ECO) in Henderson County, 692-0385.
• Quality Forward, 254-1776.