Wednesday, March 25, 2009

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Volunteer Outings

As appeared in February issue of Family Fun Magazine
by Melissa Gaskill
A veteran volunteer shares 4 ways families can make a difference on vacation

My family discovered the singular satisfaction of blending vacations and volunteering one summer afternoon on a remote Mexican beach.
For two hours, Holley, Collin, and Bridget (then ages 15,12, and 9), my husband, Corey, and I searched for endangered sea turtle nests, as waves whumped against the steep shore and a fresh, cool breeze carried a hint of salty sea.

Just as we were about to call it a day, we spotted the unmistakable V-shape of sea turtle tracks leading from the water to the dunes. A circle of disturbed sand at the end of the trail left no doubt the mother turtle had laid her clutch.

We marked the spot as the local conservation group had instructed us and hotfooted it back to report our find. We learned the next day that the nest contained 87 eggs, which were moved to a protected area until the hatchlings' release. The kids felt that they had personally saved those 87 baby turtles, and maybe they did.

Whether your family has an hour or a day, volunteering can be a simple and special way to enjoy your vacation together. Here are some suggestions to combine good works with good times.
What Needs To Be Done
Wildlife experts tally up animal populations to get a picture of which are healthy and which need help. Since the experts can't be everywhere at once, they need volunteers to watch for critters and add to the count.
How Families Can Help
The Grand Canyon Fall Raptor Migration Project counts traveling raptor species from August to November. Looking out from the Canyon's South Rim, volunteers scan the sky for southbound hawks, eagles, and falcons. Educators from sponsor HawkWatch International are on hand to help identify the raptors in flight. 800-726-4295, (click on "migration research sites" under "conservation science")
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums runs a frog-monitoring project in most states, with detailed online instructions, photographs, and recordings to help you get started. We had a blast listening to virtual frogs chirp, peep, and even bark. 301-562-0777,

Find A Program Near You
To find other raptor counting sites, visit the "On Location Hawk Watch" page at

What Needs To Be Done
Who has fun on vacation when the beach is covered with trash? No one -- so national organizations need volunteers all year-round to clean up our shores.

How Families Can Help
Ocean Conservancy sponsors the International Coastal Cleanup event on the third Saturday of September. In 2007, some 378,000 volunteers worldwide collected 6 million pounds of garbage.
California marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols took daughters, Grayce, age 7, and Julia, 4, to a cleanup event in Big Sur. "The girls are big on cleaning the beaches," Nichols said. "They'll tell you, 'The trash goes down to the ocean, the animals eat it and get sick.' " During the cleanup, the family also helped rescue a pelican with a hurt wing. 800-519-1541,
Families vacationing in Maui any time can grab a beach cleanup kit from Hawaii's Pacific Whale Foundation, complete with directions to a local beach, rubber gloves, trash bags, and instructions for disposing of the litter. 800-942-5311,

Find A Program Near You
When vacationing on the East or West Coast, check out the many beach cleanups sponsored by The Surfrider Foundation.
What Needs To Be Done
Healthy native plants and trees feed and shelter animals, prevent erosion, and make the outdoors beautiful. By collecting seeds, removing nonnative species, or planting native ones, families can protect favorite outdoor vacation spots for years to come.
How Families Can Help
The Nature Conservancy maintains preserves in all 50 states, many with volunteer opportunities. At the Ives Road Fen Preserve on the River Raisin in Michigan, families with kids ages 8 and up might pull up nonnative garlic mustard (pictured), thus making life easier for native wetlands species such as the pitcher plant, and enjoy fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies as a reward. 517-316-0300,
At Carpenter Ranch in Colorado, a working cattle ranch and another Nature Conservancy property, Spruce Up Days in August get families weeding to protect the very rare forest of cottonwood, elder, and dogwood trees. Families can work for a day or a shorter span of time during open hours from May to September. Rocky Mountain beauty and the ranch's relics of old cowboy culture add to the experience. 970-276-4626,
On National Public Lands Day, an annual event scheduled this year for September 26, volunteers who help clear brush and spread mulch, among other tasks, receive a "Fee Free" day pass to all participating public lands. Many projects include free lunch, photography contests, and nature hikes. 202-261-6478,

Find A Program Near You
The TogetherGreen initiative lists conservation efforts across the country.

What Needs To Be Done
Because national lands receive millions of visitors each year and often lack funds for adequate care, volunteering at a park your family loves is one of the best ways to help keep it in tip-top shape.

How Families Can Help
Volunteer programs differ from park to park. For example, you can collect seeds to help restore native grasslands at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, or tidy up campgrounds in Mount Rainier National Park. At Whitman Mission National Historic Site in Walla, Walla, Washington, volunteers can garden and help protect streams and trails.
"Our volunteer programs have benefits beyond physical work getting done," says Kevin Bacher, volunteer program manager at Mount Rainier. "They engage people in the parks. Families who come back in the future can say, 'That's my work. I did that.' "

Find A Program Near You
Search by park name or state to find contact information, and call ahead for volunteer opportunities whenever your family visits a site.