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From donor to volunteer: a journey rewarded by s’mores and an unforgettable summer experience

Guest post by Catherine Angellen, CPAWS donor and Get Outside B.C. volunteer

Way back in the 1980s, when environmental groups in Canada were fledglings, there was only one way my husband and I thought about participating. It was simple: Give money.

To start, we bought memberships for ourselves. If a group was publishing calendars, we didn’t fret about gift ideas for friends and relatives. We faithfully subscribed to the glossy magazines put out by organizations as a benefit of membership. (Editor David Dodge, of CPAWS’ Borealis magazine, even welcomed my queries and in 1990 published my first feature length story in the magazine.)

Environmental groups dreamed up new ways to solicit financial support.  And you name it, we bought it. Throughout our peak working and earning years, we were too busy to respond to requests that regularly arrived via snail mail. By making contributions that were deducted each month from our bank account, we put the matter of giving out of our minds. We signed petitions and sent copies of pre-drafted letters to ministers of the environment and CEOs of logging and mining companies. We wanted to make a difference and in some impersonal way, our cash donations probably helped. Yet during the decades that we were members of environmental groups, we never actually met any of their dedicated staff and volunteers.

Now that my husband and I are retired, we are exploring a new way to serve as donors. In the spring of 2013, while updating credit card information online for our monthly payment to CPAWS, we saw an opportunity to donate time, skills and experience. Get Outside BC, a gathering for youth natural leaders, needed someone to take photographs and videos (that would be my husband, assisted by me). It was our first interpersonal experience in 30 years of belonging to half a dozen environmental groups.

The third annual Get Outside BC Leadership Summit, otherwise known as GOBC, was held in two locations near Squamish from July 13-17. The event was attended by 33 teenaged participants, youth mentors and staff who convened by planes, ferries, cars and buses from five regional “hubs” representing Vancouver, Victoria (Islands), Prince George, Okanagan and Kimberley. Participants ranged in age from almost 13 to 18.

The wonderful staff at this year's Get Outside B.C. youth summit (that's me at the back, on the right)

Most of my volunteer experience with this age group relates to outdoor programs for young offenders, or visiting young offenders in an institution. My husband was a youth leader more than a generation ago. Now we had an opportunity to interact with a group of young people who are articulate, talented and going places. Some have already been recognized as leaders in their communities. How refreshing!

From early morning to late evening, the youth leaders adjusted to three full days of workshops and presentations interspersed with team-building games. Asked to set aside cellphones during programming, they easily interacted with each other, and staff from sponsors CPAWS, BC Parks, Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, and MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op). They also interacted with us, the two oldest people on the scene.

Initially, we planned to conduct our own interviews with the young subjects who appeared on camera. It quickly became apparent, however, that they were eager to interview each other and more than capable of asking one another our prepared questions. As it turned out, young people talking to their peers is a relaxing and revealing experience for everyone involved.

Photo by Colin J. McMechan

Skills and experience in photography, writing and communications are something we imagined passing on to the young people. I wrote an essay and we collaborated on “tip sheets” that we submitted for inclusion in their manuals. With everyone at a different stage of development, we figured there would be useful nuggets in these pithy handouts.

But  we soon became aware that this group of youth might have more to teach us. The photographers among them applied sophisticated techniques to their images in post-production and virtually everyone was adept at social media and networking. In many respects, our “expertise” is dated and we were struggling to keep up.

As a result, the summit did not exactly tap into my communications expertise. Thankfully there were chores, such as doing dishes, cleaning up the campsite, chopping kindling, and hanging up wet laundry that provided me with a modest role to play. None of it was onerous and all of it allowed me to hang out with an elite group for several days in B.C.’s glorious outdoors.

Certain events were profound, such as the workshop on mindfulness delivered by a 20-year-old past Get Outside BC participant. Others were heartwarming, such as a conversation along the hiking trail that began: “I’ve been looking forward to talking to you about how you got started in your career.” Still others were engaging in a funny way: “You’ve never tried a s'more’? I’ll make one for you!” Around the last night campfire, she kept her promise, presenting me with a gooey marshmallow, coated with melted chocolate, mooshed between two graham crackers. Minutes later, the word having spread, another one appeared.

There are many ways to be a donor. For those who have the means, it’s easy to write a cheque. But if you want an experience that is a whole lot sweeter and more personal, there are other options. Nothing beats your first “smore” and a gathering of keen teens whose charm and energy are already making the world a better place.