Will Work For Free
A Blog About My Experiences in Volunteer Work

Dec
08

This was an event that I attended over a month ago and have previously written about, but this is the edited video of the day’s work. The video is my attempt at telling a story with a voice over and no talking head interviews. The idea of the talking head interview did not fit my vision for how I wanted this piece to come across. It wouldn’t have ruined the flow of the video, but it was not the direction I wanted to go.

The Sutro Stewards meet on the first Saturday of every month on Mount Sutro above UCSF Medical Center and their work days are always a great time. With a good group of people, relaxed atmosphere, rewarding work and some social time provided afterward with pizza and a keg of home brewed beer; the events draw a regular crowd and always leave me with a smile and some new friends. The work that gets done often comes with instant thanks, as hikers pass through and offer their praise to the ongoing work and the crew.

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Nov
16

As I have said before here, every month The German Tourist Club in the hills of Marin County hosts their monthly work days. Members, prospective members and folks who just want to work and get a good free meal with a bunch of nice people show up to put in a few hours of actual work. Not for the weak, the ideals of the club are of pure German origin; hard work and cold beer afterward.

This video shows how volunteering bridges the age gap. As I worked with these two fine folks, we got to know each other rather well. Exploring conversations from communal living, music, the internet, school and that damn camera I kept swinging around.

Many people my age only know the Tourist Club for the parties they host during the summer. But in actuality, the place is a community of people who have a love for nature and cherish hard work and a unique place. I am still not a member, even though I have been going there since I was 3, have exceeded my membership obligations and can claim that my Grandfather helped build the place in the 1930s.

Nov
10

For what ever reason, I keep on going back to work with The Sutro Stewards. A year or so ago I did my first volunteer day with this group and have probably made the monthly commitment about 7 times since. Like a lot of these volunteer days there is some regulars, new comers and the organizers. Something about this group though has resonated with me as a place I feel comfortable and have always had a good time.

On the first Saturday of every month The Sutro Stewards, led by Craig Dawson who founded the organization in 2005 meet on Mount Sutro above UCSF Medical Center. A lot of people think Mount Sutro refers to the area above the Cliff House by Ocean Beach, but alas that is a different Sutro area. Adolph Sutro was a very wealthy and prominent early San Franciscan and owned many areas of the city.

On this particular day, the Sutro Stewards were joined by representatives and volunteer workers from REI and the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council to make this volunteer day something out of the ordinary. Through this larger partnership, 12 locations and over 700 volunteers were spread out across the Bay Area to work toward completing an all connecting ridge trail through the bay area.

The usual sleepy crowd of about 15 to 30 people which is expected for a Sutro work day was dwarfed by about 100 volunteers flooding the woodland parking lot above UCSF. It was something to see, that many people. It really made me proud to be a regular attendee of the work days, it was cool having all these new people join in on the fun and be amazed by the beauty and expanse of trails on Mount Sutro.

It is tough to organize that many volunteers and I wondered what our level of productivity was going to look like. Others shared my thoughts. But once everyone was given tools and organizers and leaders gave a brief but thorough safety talk, all hands were on deck and the work was persistent.

We put on gloves, grabbed tools and collectively created well over one hundred yards of brand new trail. Cutting into the foliage and removing weeds, fallen trees, thick bushes and every other matter of overgrown greenery that stood in the way of bringing an existing trail back from the dead.

Afterward, everyone reconveened at the recently built community center on the hillside and a free lunch was provided by chipotle Mexican Grill. REI presented The Bay Area Ridge Trail Council with a check for $25,000 and a raffle sent people home with a few new toys. It was the perfect testament to what can be accomplished with volunteer work and comunity effort, and of course the weight that a company like REI can swing. A lot of the people I met who had never been there had heard about the event through REI’s event calendar. This is a fact that I feel really speaks well of REI, despite their large status they still work to protect and promote the landscape in which their merchandise is intended to be used. So good for them.

Usually the Sutro events end with free pizza and a keg of beer for volunteers, a touch that has my self and many others coming back again and again. But this special event was refreshing and a lot of fun. It was awesome walking the length of the newly forged trail after all the people had left, a lot had been accomplished.

Nov
03

I have relayed some of my personal volunteer experiences on this blog but it occurred to me that a map or a list alerting my readers to upcoming volunteer events might be helpful and even eye opening. The amount of volunteer events with in the Bay Area on a weekly basis is staggering. There is no way a person could attend all or even most of them in any given month, week or even day. The variety of activities, locations and crowds drawn is a diverse as San Francisco itself.

This makes it hard to keep track of volunteer events. With so many, how do you choose? For me, there are two prime sources I like to refer to stay up on volunteer events. For me, I love nature and I love to work outside. It is this type of work that I personally get the most out of and luckily there is no shortage of these type of events. From creek bank rehabilitation to cultivating native plants to trail maintnance, there is something for everyone. To stay up on these events I rely on the Events Calendar provided by Bay Nature Magazine. Yes, it is true, I also intern for this magazine. And as a duty of my internship I keep this calendar current on a weekly basis; but despite this blatant bias, it is a great resource. Hundreds of events are loaded to the calendar on a weekly basis and you would be hard pressed to find an outdoor volunteer event not listed here. So please check it out. You will be amazed at the wealth of opportunities to join your fellow man in getting your hands dirty and helping out Mother Earth.

Secondly is One Brick. This fantastic organization rounds up volunteers in cities across the country to lend hands for various community based projects. They do not host the events, but rather provide the volunteers for the events. They lure their volunteers in with the appeal of community, interaction and friendships with those who also want to try something fun while helping out. Their events range from golf tournaments to trail work to soup kitchens and always end with some sort of social gathering afterward. Started in San Francisco, their aim is to unite people and help the communities around them.

The map I am providing is a snippet of events which are taking place this Saturday, November 5. It would take hours to list all the events of the coming week and such a list is provided in each of the links to these two event calendars. So please, take a look at the map and the links I have provided and get out there and volunteer. You will feel good about yourself and have a lot of fun in the process.

Oct
20

In the neighborhoods around 14th Ave and Pacheco St there is a hidden effort to preserve a remnant of native ecology. Every month workers come together and offer their time for free to give a rare butterfly a fighting chance in a landscape dominated by the urban sprawl of human life. In these hill-side neighborhoods, below what is commonly refered to as the Rocky Outcrop, several empty parcels of land owned by the city have been handed over to the non-profit organization, Nature in the City. These small plots of land which had until recently been nothing but small islands full of ice plant have been turned into havens for the Green Hairstreak Butterfly.

This small and rare butterfly is native to the area and needs the help of humans to reclaim its mating and breeding grounds. During the 1950s and 1960s ice plant was put in on almost every vacant piece of sandy terrain to prevent the sand from blowing about. Now, volunteer workers are tearing out the ice plant and planting the native Coastal Buckwheat. This little dime-sized green butterfly needs the low-lying protection of the buckwheat to lay its eggs.

Every third Saturday of the month, site stewards of the five locations around the neighborhood meet with volunteers at the corner of 14th Ave and Pacheco at 10 in the morning. Snacks are available and there is a small socialization period before stewards break up the volunteer crew and take them to the separate sites.

The effort extends to the neighborhood. Mike Belcher, a retired Fire Fighter from Station 12 in San Francisco has been a resident of the city his entire life. As one neighbor exits her house, asking what the crew is up to; he turns to her with a very friendly demeanor and tells her the goal of the labor. It is hard to find someone unsympathetic to the idea of turning an unused triangle of land at the intersection of two streets into a sanctuary for a rare butterfly. Not only will this provide a habitat for the butterfly, he explains, but if you would like we can work with you and turn your own yard into a sanctuary by getting you some Coastal Buckwheat to plant on your own. This idea has appealed to many neighbors and the popularity is spreading. After all, you don’t want to be the only one on the block who hasn’t created a butterfly habitat in your yard.

Volunteer work includes the constant removal of weeds and invasive grasses working to cover the buckwheat, planting new buckwheat, tearing out ice plant and keeping the potential breeding zones free of obstacles for the butterfly. Like other projects of a similar nature, the crowd it draws is a pleasant one. Friendly and down to earth people dominate the lineup. Eager to work and happy to help is the vibe.

Oct
13

The Presidio Nursery is exactly what I think of when I think about a well functioning organization that works toward a consistent and obtainable goal with the use of regular volunteers. It is a community of like minded people from all walks of life coming together for selfless reasons to enjoy the company of others and the aesthetic joy of getting their hands dirty.

I showed up at their drop in volunteer day one Wednesday after I fulfilled another journalistic agenda by interviewing Mark Frey. Mark Frey is the Supervisory Director of The Presidio Trust and I needed to talk to him about a story I was working on for my internship with Bay Nature Magazine. That story, briefly, is on the current Daylighting project being conducted in the Presidio at Dragonfly Creek. Daylighting is, as I said in another post, the process of freeing a creek from an underground pipe and bringing back to the surface. The goal is to provide a natural wetland area for wild life and plants.

While interviewing Mark and touring around the site of the creek project I learned that once the creek project reaches a certain stage, thousands of native plants will be planted along its banks, making habitats for a variety of insects including Dragonflies and Butterflies.

I then learned that all of the plants for the project are grown on location in the nursery, which is located on the hill just above the site where Dragonfly Creek will soon be flowing naturally. And lucky for me the nursery does drop in volunteer days every Wednesday, and only an hour or so after my interview and site inspection would be complete. The opportunity was perfect and I was more than happy to spend this gorgeous day being outside and getting my hands into some dirt.

When I showed up at the nursery, I sat outside and ate my lunch until it was scheduled to start at 1 in the afternoon.

Immediately I saw a familiar face. Once you start volunteering with nature related projects in San Francisco the circle of people seems to get smaller and smaller. The first person I saw was Eli Huerta Ortiz, who as I found out is one of the directors of the nursery. I met her about a year ago at a Nature in the City fundraising event that I volunteered at. I had to remind her of who I was, but once I did she remembered me instantly. We have a mutual friend, Sangeet. Sangeet and I know each other through surfing and he used to intern at the Presidio Nursery. Small world, or city, or population of people into plants and nature.

The crowd at the volunteer event was nicely mixed. For the most part it is older folks; retired with a love for gardening and ecology, they come here to wet their whistle on collective work that produces tangible results. We all sat down in a circle in their meeting room and Eli led the group by presenting a dry-erase board with the days tasks listed on it and how many people needed to man each task.

Seed cleaning, weed removal, tending to the green house needs, shoveling mounds of compost-mulch and few others provided plenty of work for the three-hour volunteer shift. My self and the one other young guy in the group offered our selves up for what became obviously the least desirable task of the afternoon: shoveling piles of compost-mulch. Here is the process. A girl manned a piece of machinery known as a loader, she used the heavy equipment to scoop large piles of the raw compost/mulch and dumped them into a large sifter. The sifter would role the raw material through a giant cylinder with a screen; the fine mulch would pour out into one pile and the larger pieces would come out the other end. Our job was to constantly be shoveling the larger pieces away from their exit point so that the pile would not build up to high. We wore dust masks, goggles and earplugs. Being used to manual labor, the task was a breeze, but I can imagine that for one of the retired folks in the green house, it would not be so pleasant. So, I was glad to be able to take on that task. So was the other guy, he was cool.

About half way through the shift, a small snack was prepared. Carrots, granola and some chips and dip were put out on a table and we all took five. Today was one girl’s birthday and a cake was brought out and the birthday song was sung. It was nice. It really showed how much, for one she cared about the place to be there on her birthday and how much everyone cared about her, to bring a cake and remember that it was her birthday. It was sweet, and the cake was delicious.

After snack time (I love saying that phrase) we resumed work. I joined Eli and an older gentleman named John in removing a bunch of assorted weeds from one nook of the property. I buried my self deep into some foliage and set into removing some incredibly long sections of blackberry which were entangling their way through the desired bushes.

The Presido Nursey just recently grew their one millionth plant. An incredible feat by anyones standards. As a non-profit agency that runs almost entirely on volunteer help I feel that they are a model of community effort.

The welcoming I received was warm and instant. There is no elitist attitude, no self-righteousness about contributing time for free to a natural cause; just down to earth people who love nature and don’t mind working for free. They are the type of people who inspire me to do this sort of work and I will continue to attend their work days as often as I can. At the end of the day, Eli welcomed me and introduced me once again to the group as we had our final pow-wow to hear about everyone’s afternoon. Rounds of applause were offered as each coordinator relayed their progress of the day and the room was full of smiling and fulfilled human beings.

Oct
06

This is a segment I put together consisting of an interview with the Presidio Park Nursery manager, Ely Huerta Ortiz as well as another volunteer. I wove their interviews in with some cheese-ball commentary done by yours truly to create a radio show of sorts. It was my first effort at a project like this, and while it isn’t just how I would like it to sound, it’s not too bad.

I did a volunteer work day with the nursery and greatly enjoyed myself. I think the moments within this interview do a good job of representing and speaking toward the value and significance of volunteer work.

Sep
29

This is an audio interview I did with Mark Frey of the Presidio Park Trust. I visited Mark Frey at first to interview him about the new daylighting project taking place in the Presidio on Dragonfly Creek. I am writing a story for my internship with Bay Nature Magazine on the creek project. For those of you who don’t know what daylighting is (I didn’t), it is the process of unearthing a creek which runs through a pipe and re-exposing it to the surface.

In addition to being the site coordinator for the project, Mark also oversees hundreds of volunteers every year and thousands of volunteer hours.

Sep
22

In the 1930s, my mom’s dad or in other words my grandfather lent his blood, sweat and tears to the German Tourist Club.  A hidden gem tucked into the hills above Mill Valley, this unique place was a refuge for homesick Austrian and German immigrants.  Originally built in 1912, it served as a throw back to the way it was in the old country.  Built in traditioinal architectural fashion, the lodge could only be acessed by trails, making it the perfect location for social gatherings and a jumping off point for longer hikes through what is now known as Muir Woods.

For years I have been coming here.  Three times a summer, in May, July and September they host a party with traditional German dancing, attire, music food, beer and ambience.  A polka band turns the rustic wooden deck into a swirling, foot slapping shindig of lederhosen and frosty beer steins.

For kids there are games in the adjacent meadow and plenty of little nooks and crannies to explore; taking anyone with even a hint of imagination into the Alps of Germany and Austria.  It is a fixture of my childhood memories and a very special place to me.

The German Tourist Club is a members run, private institution that is the San Francisco chapter of the Friends of Nature.  They maintain the compound completely out of money earned during the parties and thanks to the help of volunteers.  Volunteering can eventually lead to membership, along with a few extra hoops along the way.

I volunteered for the first time two years ago.  With a hint of shame, it was not until this last weekend (September 13) that I completed my third volunteer day.  Considering my long standing relationship with the place I feel as though I should have already become a member, but that is neither here nor there.

The structure is obviously quite old and needs maintnance constantly as do the surounding grounds which are owned by the club.

On this particular morning I hike in by my self.  Typical of the area, the fog is so thick at 8 in the morning I can scarcely see ten fet infront of me.  The valley below is invisible and the fog blows across the hills gently.  Almost out of nowhere the Tourist Club appears; eerie in the heavy mist, tucked into a vast redwood grove.

A few other volunters stand idly on the main deck and I join them.  We introduce ourselves and wait for the coordinator, Oliver and the other volunteers to show up.  Oliver comes down from the kitchen of the lodge with a mug of coffee.  Even though it has been two years since I last made it to a work day, he recognizes me.  He is apparently famous amongst the club for remembering people’s full names and their relationship to the club.  He himself has a long family tradition and I can’t imagine is much older than 40.

Soon enough the 30 or so volunteers are delegated tasks.  I get sent onto a trail above the club with about six others and we begin to clear dead branches, invasive plants and overgrown weeds from the trail.  Some caution is needed, as poison oak is prevelant amongst the foliage.  Some of the people in attendance are not aware of what poison oak looks like or even what it does.  As a seasoned hiker in the area I am taken back by this, but quickly point it out.  As far as I know, everyone steered clear of it pretty well.  I half expected a rash to pop up within the next day or so, but none materialized.

I will be the firs to admit, this is volunteering with some motive.  As volunteers, we are ultimately seeking membership.  Membership grants you access to a lodge in Tahoe and dozens of others through out the world.  But it is more than that.  There are many who have been volunteering for several years and have not gone through the official process of obtaining membership.  The place is special, and once you have spent some time here it feels good to lend a hand.

I have had the oppurtunity of meeting many interesting people here.  Some are a tad salty; they wish the club was still an unknown gem rather than the popular location it has become.  But most are glad to meet enthusiastic, young volunteers who have an interest in hiking and the outdoors.  Hard work speaks for itself and is expected of volunteers.  All who attend the work days are rewarded with a grand lunch at the end of the day and the meal feels like you are sitting down with family and friends.  It is a true comunion and bread breaking in a place of great splendor.

I will continue to attend work days.  I have now fullfilled my obligations to become eligible for membership, but like all real members and enthusiasts, membership is not necessarily the culmination of my efforts.  I enjoy working outside and I enjoy the people whom I meet at this place where my grandfather too found a home away from home, so long ago.

Sep
07

You hear it all the time; volunteer work is very rewarding, it is a great way to give back to your community, if you have the time to help then why don’t you?

These, in my opinion, are all valid statements.  Volunteer work is rewarding, it is a good way to give back, and if you have the time you should help.  But not everyone does, even if they may want to.  Maybe they think the whole thing sounds a little to hippy-dippy and not really their scene, maybe they don’t know where to go or what to expect, or maybe they just don’t realise how much fun you can have and what you can learn.

I will admit, my first time doing volunteer work for a non-profit in San Francisco was to craft a story for my magazine class.  Like a journalist, I wanted to get in there and capture a scene, to be an outsider looking in and then transcribe it to paper.  It was a organization I was fond of, don’t get me wrong; but I may not have ever gone if it had not been for needing 2,500 words and ten human sources. 

Well, shit, even my second time was for the purpose of a story; but I swear since then, I have been going on my own accord.  The only journalistic agenda I had was the inescapable, hard-wired one in my head.  Oh yeah, and now this blog.  But that’s different.

It’s fun.  There are cool people, some cute girls, food, beer (sometimes), I learn a lot about what I am doing; and I get the satisfaction one can only gain from a day of manual labor.  (note* my first time was not manual labor, but a fundraising event for Nature in the City)

So now I’m sharing my experiences; shedding some light and transparency on the world of volunteer work in hopes that I make it sound cool, so that other people will be tempted to give it a shot.

There is no shortage of volunteer opportunities in San Francisco.  The city is ripe with compassion and go-getter attitudes.  Those two attributes combined have bred several organizations that put together monthly, weekly and even daily opportunities for people to give their time in the name of helping people and nature.  And like my self, others are spreading the word and sharing their excitement through news letters and blog posts.

Nature in the City is a non-profit organization that works to maintain native ecology and remove invasive plants from fragile habitats within San Francisco. They are the first organization I hooked up with and they continue to offer volunteer work and promote themselves through their newsletters and volunteer notices.

Rebuilding Together SF is another non-profit that I have recently stumbled upon. Several of their volunteers keep blog entries about the work that they do. Here are a few links to some of their recent entries.

Rebuilding Together and the Ghostbusters

It’s That Time Again… Or Is It?

Wonder What To Do About Graffiti?

I’m excited that so many people are willing to offer their time to help people. In a world that I feel is so tainted by the human condition, it is refreshing to know that people care about each other, about nature and about separating themselves from the hypocrisies and cruelties that dominate mainstream media and in a lot of ways, day-to-day life.