I’m a professional volunteer.
So many times, when asked “What do you do” I would trip through some clunky explanations about being an empty-nester and a retired Veteran, but loving to travel, and “doing what I want”, and doing a lot of volunteer work and maybe even toss in a comment about being a management consultant – all to make the listener feel more comfortable that they weren’t talking to some homeless gypsy trying to find herself. All that seemed tiresome, until recently when I tried the simple response that I’m a “Professional Volunteer.” It was intriguing, offered an element of responsibility and expertise, and hinted that mine isn’t a traditional way of life – all in two succinct words.
So what does it mean? How do I do it? Why?
It started while my son was a senior in high school. I dreaded the “empty nest” and while surfing the interwebs, I ran across a blog by an awesome couple that dealt with this phenomenon in an interesting way. It got me thinking that I could do the same thing – put everything in storage and just get rid of the nest – problem avoidance at its best!
Chucking everything into storage and figuring out how to spend large chunks of time traveling became an obsession. After months of downsizing, donating, planning and packing, my journey started in August 2012 with a four-month road trip that involved dropping kiddo off at school, visiting long-lost friends, and doing some volunteer work along the way. I didn’t really have much lined up for beyond that first four months, and I actually fell into an interesting part-time consulting gig with Habitat for Humanity which initially suited my life well. I enjoyed it and felt good about all of it, and definitely traveled a lot but wasn’t terribly disappointed this past November when it ran its course and I had a new-found freedom to schedule my own adventures!
So 2015 begins with a renewed effort to be a professional volunteer – someone who trades skills and labor for room and board in support of our public lands and other non-profits. (That’s my definition, anyway!) It isn’t a lifestyle for everyone, but there’s something for anyone that is interested. Here are the things I’m involved in and I am passionate about all of them – they even all overlap a little, so that makes it really nice!
Leading Service Vacations for the Sierra Club National Outings Committee
The Sierra Club is widely known as that tree-hugging group of lobbyist that make sure our public lands are preserved, but they don’t just beat the political drum. They also invite and encourage people from all walks of life to get outdoors and experience the very thing for which they advocate. In addition to the adventure trips both locally and internationally, they also offer service vacation opportunities. I had taken a few of these pre-retirement and figured out how to become an outings leader.
Team Rubicon Disaster Response Volunteer
When bad things happen in a community, TR steps in to help with the clean-up. This is impossible to schedule, but when it happens and I’m available, I take off to wherever the thing happened and do my part. Helping victims of disaster is rewarding in itself, but doing so along other veterans and seeing the positive impact selfless service brings to those struggling with post-service reintegration is about as awesome as it gets.
Volunteering in National and State Parks
Later this summer I’ll be joining a trail crew for about six weeks in Dixie National Forest in Utah. In return, I’ll get a bed in a bunk house with hot showers and meals and three days off each week to explore (and recover!). It’ll be hard work, but good honest healthy work that our parks need.
Working for Park Concessionaires
I’ll close out the summer working for Xanterra at a lodge in Yellowstone. It’s a commercial profit-driven enterprise but one that keeps folks coming to our public lands and maybe even sparking some interest in conservation or outdoor recreation. I’ve met Xanterra employees at other parks that have been doing this type of seasonal work in our parks for over 15 years and loving it. Sure, the work is hard – usually retail or food service, and very customer-facing, but the locales are unimaginably rewarding and there are opportunities to move around throughout the parks. There are other vendors as well and many listings can be found on Cool Works.
These are just the things I’ve gotten myself into over the past year and upcoming summer. Some call me “lucky” that I have a military pension that allows me the flexibility of a less structured lifestyle. I’m not so sure that’s luck. I mean, I did enlist and spend 20 years to earn it, and there are well documented issues with the VA and medical care available to Veterans. So yeah, lucky isn’t the word I use. It does keep gas in the car and peanut butter in the pantry, and I am grateful that I have the opportunity. I am also very thankful that I have a family that gets it. Or at least tolerates it! Stay tuned, subscribe, and follow along – it’s sure to be a great summer! Who knows, maybe you are due for a change of profession?