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A Testament to Volunteering Creatively

Updated: Nov 16

By: Emily Gennrich, UPLC Volunteer



I have been inside too long. This sentiment hit me hard one day this summer after finishing up another long day at work. Like many office workers during the Covid-19 shut-downs, I have been working remotely from my home, and as a result, working incessantly. Indeed, the boundaries between life and work had blurred (or downright disappeared) when my home became my office.



I needed a vacation, a break. But not just some days off, lounging around doing nothing. To be honest, I’d done honestly a bit too much of that the past year, nurturing a growing Netflix addiction and a dangerous propensity for vegging out in my spare time. I wanted to regain my inspiration, my motivation -- to feel connected to my life, and my state, and excited about planning for the future again. I started exploring my options, and quickly decided: I was going to volunteer. But where?


For me it was an easy answer: Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula. I’d been dreaming of a regular ol’ vacation here, and was also interested in scoping out whether I’d be interested in living here long-term. So I thought - why not pair all these goals together and see if there was a park or conservation organization that could use some help for a couple weeks in the late summer for me to come and join them. Turns out, there certainly was opportunity.



Now I’ll be the first to admit, finding the time, ability, and personal resources to take time off of work to volunteer is not always easy (or at times even doable). Taking unpaid time off of work - or even using precious paid vacation time - is often unrealistic or not even an option for many of us. However, I decided it couldn’t hurt to research what options were out there. I was lucky and incredibly elated to find that my very own company offers its workforce a certain number of Volunteer Time Off (VTO) hours per year, which surprisingly many of its employees don’t even take advantage of. Indeed, I learned that many large companies are starting to offer hours such as this, or are otherwise encouraging their workforce to get out there and support their communities. The biggest lesson I learned in this research is that there can definitely be ways to donate your time to a cause you believe in, without sacrificing your livelihood - you just may need to get creative and do some digging or asking around to identify them.



Now that I’d found a way to devote time and knew where I wanted to do it, I needed to identify what organization was out there that was aligned with my personal goals and values. I knew I wanted to get back to nature, and rekindle my connection to parks and public lands. From poking around the internet, I discovered there are a ton of great opportunities out there. Often, the most easy-to-find ones are pre-scheduled volunteering events that are typically quite helpful for people to plan around and dedicate time to - for example, weekend beach clean-ups, one-day trail maintenance projects, remote work with a clear deadline, etc. But if those pre-scheduled events don’t align with your volunteer time-frame, don’t be dissuaded! Many organizations will jump at the chance to work with you to creatively develop a customized volunteer experience (even a virtual-only one!)- there’s always a way to help. Enter: the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy (UPLC).



As soon as I stumbled upon the UPLC online, I knew I wanted to give my time to this impressive organization that is doing so much to preserve precious land and natural resources in the state: promoting conservation and recreation, protecting natural habitats, and educating the public and other landowners to learn and practice the same. And let me tell you, they didn’t disappoint. Reaching out to them to offer my volunteer time led me to the most amazing two weeks of time that I’ve experienced in ages. This volunteer work didn’t seem at all like work. It was work where I really could sense I was making a difference - be it for the preservation of the land, for the benefit of the local community, or even for the general workday of the conservancy staff.



And not just help, but learn. With many volunteer opportunities, you can get the chance to touch all sorts of projects -- big and small -- and grow new skills and software experience along the way. Here’s a few examples of skills I got to learn, sharpen, and/or contribute during my time with the UPLC:

  • Content Creation & Design - Crafting a printed brochure, drafting a website page, and compiling content for social media posts

  • Website Editing & Auditing - Going through a newly-made org website, validating links, and proofreading text

  • Trail Work - The fun outdoor stuff! Cleaning up an overgrown trail, scoping out needed repairs, and learning how trails are created and maintained

  • Filing Paperwork - Zoning/zenning out while getting annual records up-to-date and filed appropriately

  • CRM Optimization - Auditing records and optimizing workflows (Who would’ve thought Salesforce experience would be relevant to conservation work?)



And, to add to my list of reasons why volunteering with the UPLC was such a success, it turns out I ended up falling absolutely head-over-heels in LOVE with this beautiful area of the state. The UP is full of hiking trails, chilly beaches, colorful messy forests, winding drives, and honestly some of the most welcoming and remarkable people I’ve ever met. The saying goes “for it is in giving that we receive” (Francis of Assisi), and I can absolutely attest that this was my experience. Through giving my time and skills in volunteering somewhere magical, I received in return a connection to a people, a place, and a community that I’ve never felt before, corny as it may sound.


All this to say that I highly highly encourage anyone and everyone to explore their options of how to carve out time in your life to dedicate to volunteering, and to utilize the opportunity to learn more about yourself and connect to something that brings you meaning. I promise, volunteering creatively has the potential to change your life. It definitely changed mine.