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I Learn Something New

July 19, 2011

As you know, I have not always been charitable to Gen Y, viewing them as self-centred and overly focused on technology toys and generally uninterested in the wider world.  But lately I’ve had to reassess that view.

In order to meet our tree planting goals at the farm we have found it necessary to get additional help.  Our goal this year is to plant 21,000 trees and on a good day I can do about 100 and then require a week off to recover.  So reinforcements are needed, and we’ve gotten a lot of wonderful volunteer help.

One of the sources of volunteers is an organization known as Conservation Volunteers.  For a fee, they send out a group of volunteers, usually around 8 people and a professional leader and they spend a week planting and doing any other work that needs to be done.

The first time we used the Conservation Volunteers, my wife had made all the arrangements and I didn’t know anything about the program.  When a van full of young people wearing high visibility vests pulled up I assumed that they were a bunch of proto-felons doing community service.

Wrong!  They are young people, usually aged 18-25 from all over the world who are spending their vacations doing conservation work.  Instead of booking a Contiki tour or a week on a beach somewhere, they pay Conservation Volunteers for the opportunity to work.  They can sign up for as many weeks as they want and most of the people we’ve dealt with have come to work for three weeks or more.  They show up at the Conservation Volunteers headquarters in Auckland and are randomly assigned to clients anywhere in New Zealand.  They could work for a local government, at a national or regional park, or at a private project like ours.  

As far as I know, there was no such thing as Conservation Volunteers when I was that age.  And I am fairly certain that if there had been I wouldn’t have been a volunteer.

But these young adults are willing to come to a strange country, work outside all day long in all conditions from hot summer to wet winter weather, eat their lunch in the field and come back to whatever accommodation the site may provide.  We at least give them a reasonably comfortable cottage but in some places they stay in Department of Conservation huts which, if they were used to house prisoners or refugees would get someone slapped with a human rights violation.

We’ve now had four different groups of volunteers out for four weeks and I’ve gotten a chance to find out a little bit about their motivations.  They’ve come from Korea, the US, England, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and Austria and the common denominator is that they all want to do something positive for the world and be part of something bigger than themselves.  Some of them don’t even take time before or after to do touristy things–their entire visit here is spent working.  

The amazing thing is what happens at the end of each week.  They have spent the week outside of their comfort zones doing demanding physical work under difficult conditions and the result is that they feel newly empowered and keep thanking us for giving them the opportunity.

I don’t know how representative of their generation these young adults are, but it’s a breath of fresh air to meet people who are altruistic, energetic and see the world as a bigger place than Facebook.  You can see all of the contributions the different groups of Conservation Volunteers have made by checking out the What’s New section of the CUE Haven web site.  

23 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 10:59 pm

    This is important work. One of my desires for work job creation is to get the federal government to begin a “Reforestation of North America” project. Hundreds of thousands could be employed planting millions of trees. . Something has to be done to counter the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. No one is listening.

    • July 20, 2011 9:17 am

      Interesting idea, but unfortunately probably not something any politician is likely to champion. Do you know if there are many private reforestation projects going on in the US?

  2. Snoring Dog Studio permalink
    July 19, 2011 11:16 pm

    I like to think there’s hope that the Gen Y’rs will turn out to be productive and conscientious. Thank you for this positive message about these youth.

    • July 20, 2011 9:26 am

      Thanks, it’s especially nice because the experiences they are having appear to be reinforcing their altruism rather than discouraging it.

  3. July 20, 2011 12:19 am

    Great story Thomas. There are a lot of good Gen Y out there. It’s amazing to me the number of kids around here that are dropping their Facebook accounts realizing the negative effects of their time consumption in producing nothing. Thanks for sharing about the Conservation Volunteers.

    • July 20, 2011 9:27 am

      Thanks Jeanne. We don’t have cell phone or internet access at the farm and no one has had any serious withdrawal symptoms so far!

  4. July 20, 2011 1:55 am

    This well-told story is exactly what I love to read, so thank you for taking the time to write it and illustrate it with great shots.

    I, too, would have loved to do something like this when I had the youthful strength of body.

    I am cleaning up a portion of our property this summer. Each day, with rake and clippers, I go out into a thicket…

    Each night, with a glass of wine…I marvel at what I didn’t get done!

  5. July 20, 2011 2:36 am

    See what happens when you stereotype? 🙂

    P.S. Let me get this straight. These people PAY to participate in the program. You PAY to have them plant trees, and the organization calls itself Conservation VOLUNTEERS? Thomas, I think we’re in the wrong line of work!

    • July 20, 2011 9:23 am

      Yes, I am eating humble pie over my stereotyping, but I reserve the right to continue doing it!

      You noticed that interesting aspect of the CV business model . . . actually they go out of their way to be transparent and the volunteers are pretty much paying for their costs and we are paying below market rates for their labor so it’s a win win and CV isn’t getting rich.

  6. July 20, 2011 4:24 am

    Alas…Something positive and uplifting in the world. Lucky you to host these youth. thanks for sharing this.

    • July 20, 2011 9:24 am

      You’re welcome. It would be interesting to see how your clients would do in this environment!

  7. jacquelincangro permalink
    July 20, 2011 6:18 am

    What a refreshing sight. After several rounds of interns who don’t seem to understand the concept of 9:00 am, this certainly gives me hope for the next generation. Good for them (and you!).

    • July 20, 2011 9:25 am

      Thanks! I shouldn’t say this, but I think that getting them away from their parents helps a lot.

  8. July 20, 2011 11:40 am

    From my experience doing trail maintenance work over quite a few years, I know there is something deeply satisfying about doing this kind of physical work. I suspect that for these young people, the satisfaction of doing hard physical work is very rewarding, and any of us who participate in this kind of work experience a deep reward, which keeps this kind of thing going. Perhaps in our modern world of desk jobs in skyscrapers, when we come into contact with tools like shovels and mattocks, we actually feel grateful—it is an essential part of the human experience.

    • July 20, 2011 10:43 pm

      Thanks, Jenny. I think you’re right and you’ve hit on the feeling that this work gives me–knowing that what you are doing will be around and continue to provide enjoyment after you are gone is great motivation and reward.

  9. July 20, 2011 7:16 pm

    99% of Gen Y may still be self-centered (I just realized the American version requires an extra “e”), overly focused on technology toys, and generally uninterested in the wider world.

  10. July 20, 2011 7:51 pm

    Great story, Tom. Thanks.

  11. July 23, 2011 7:10 pm

    This was a treat to read. So often it is the other side of the coin we hear about- the drug users, the slackers, etc. This sounds like a nice organization. I admit my cynical hackles went up when I read this line- “For a fee, they send out a group of volunteers” but I know how these things work and the rest of the post showed just how worthy this group is. Meanwhile, I’m sure you mentioned this before, but how big is your farm? (21,000 trees!)

  12. July 26, 2011 6:01 pm

    I’ve really loved the Gen Y’ers I have known. They’re considerate, funny, unbigoted, and totally at sea because they’ve been raised to believe they could do anything they want and they have no idea what that might be. Now you say they’re traveling in gangs. Praise be!

  13. July 29, 2011 12:29 pm

    What a great program, Tom! Glad you were able to take advantage of it!


  14. September 8, 2011 9:51 am

    great post Thomas and really good to see the other side of the coin. I love what these kids are doing and bravo to them. How lovely it would be if more kids were able to or wanted to take this opportunity.
    thanks for this.

  15. September 8, 2011 11:06 am

    Thanks Cindy. Since I did this post we’ve had three more groups out and they have all been amazing.

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