Guest post by Dylan Manderlink
After completing my first year of teaching in a public school in Arkansas, I decided to design my summer around volunteerism, giving back, seeing a new place, and restorative self-care.
Luckily, as a public school teacher, I had about a month or so of uninterrupted and school-free summer to enjoy. Volunteering for me, is restorative in so many ways – for my soul, mind, interpersonal connections, and of course and most importantly – the communities and people I work for and alongside.
I knew that after a year of experiencing the ups, downs, stressors, daily surprises and rewarding moments of teaching, I needed to give back to a community and productively contribute to the greater good in a different way.
After the bell rang marking the last day of school, I packed my bags and headed to southern Utah for a community service experience I will never forget.
WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farming
WWOOF is a network that “links volunteers with organic farms and growers where in return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodations, and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.” This organization is optimal if you’re on a tight budget (like me!) and find great value in traveling purposefully – to see more of the planet in which we live, deepen your understanding of the nation we coexist in, meet and support local and diverse communities, and (hopefully) put more good out into the world – because we always need more of that.
This summer was my second time WWOOFing (I had volunteered through WWOOF once before in Kenny Lake, Alaska for three weeks) and I decided to volunteer on an organic vineyard in southern Utah. It was simply by luck that I found them, but I am so glad I did.
Although I’m a public school teacher, and my salary doesn’t exactly allow for a lot of traveling, I have made a pact to myself to visit every state in our country. Not just drive through it, but spend an amount of time that allows for a meaningful experience. I want to learn about different communities in each state, what challenges they face, what value they hold and contribute to society, and how I can support their local community service efforts.
Utah signified a new region of the country I had not yet seen or experienced. The state could not have been more different than Arkansas or New England (where I grew up and lived for most of my life), and I was tremendously grateful to be immersed in a place as unique as that.
The desert is vast, seemingly unending, dangerously hot, and beautiful in its comforting but overwhelmingly expansive way. Much of Utah’s land remains untouched, and unlike the Northeast and parts of Arkansas, you can travel many miles without running into a business building or populous neighborhood. The rural landscape and arresting natural beauty of the canyons and red rock were my daily views as I pruned the grape vines on the vineyard. Not only was I usefully contributing to an organic ranch and vineyard that sustained and supported itself by the goodwill and assistance of volunteers from all over the globe, but I was also seeing a new part of our country through a unique lens.
The Volunteer Work – Working with the Land
Getting my hands dirty and being more than okay with it was the motto of the summer. There is something particularly rewarding about serving outside and being immersed in the environment. Not only was it refreshing to be outside the whole day when most of my year was spent inside a classroom, but I was able to let nature and its unfailing honesty meaningfully shape my volunteer experience. From clipping grape vines, to planting, to weeding in the organic garden, much of my day was spent greatly appreciating and observing the environment around me and the people who have created a unique community within it.
I volunteered five days a week for about 6 hours a day along with other WWOOFers from all over the world. I engaged in culturally competent and stimulating conversations with those from across our nation and globe, discussed social and environmental injustices, and felt comforted by the spirit of volunteerism that was so generously shared by everyone on the vineyard. I left my WWOOF experience feeling re-inspired, bold in my passions for making a difference, and reenergized to enter the classroom and share my experience with my students.
Although I may not have been spending my summer at the forefront of a social movement or generating significant progress in areas I’m passionate about, the month I spent in Utah helped renew my faith in humankind, restore my sense of self, give back to a community that relies on that service, learn about other ways of life that exist in our nation and across the globe, personally contribute to the larger idea of sustainability, and deepen my understanding of what it means to be a volunteer.
Advice to Volunteer Coordinators and Nonprofits
If your organization is able, allowing your volunteers to work outside of their comfort zone – both in the geographical and emotional sense, will lead to a more fruitful, meaningful, challenging and personalized volunteer experience. The experience of having to redefine, readjust, and observe a new community, its assets, and its challenges through a unique, unadulterated, and adventurous lens is certainly a privilege and an opportunity that has the potential to teach a lot.
Some of the most memorable and impactful volunteer experiences I’ve had were ones where I left my comfort zone, traveled somewhere new, and surrounded myself with people I had never met. The abundance of new experiences excited me but also taught me how important it is to give back in ways that may not always be familiar, routine, or comfortable for you. Take a risk, see new things, meet new people, and engage in volunteerism…outside of your comfort zone.
Dylan Manderlink teaches Drama, Audio Visual Technology, and Digital Communications at a public high school in rural Arkansas. She graduated from Emerson College in Boston, MA and studied a self-designed major titled Investigative Theatre for Social Change.You can follow her on Twitter at @DylanManderlink.