Sun Shine: At Broad Meadow Brook volunteers are a natural fit

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This article was originally published in the Aug. 7, 2016 edition of the Sun.

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She looked upon her visitor oddly. Most likely this was because she — being 8, enjoying pill bugs, and wearing appropriate clothing — had not anticipated running into someone in the same setting, slightly older, and — having chosen to wear a full suit — schvitzing like a penguin stuck in New Delhi.

The critical look was probably very much warranted, particularly given our shared location.

Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary is tucked away just beyond Route 20 on Massasoit Road. Containing five miles of trails across 430 acres of land, Broad Meadow Brook is not only the sole Massachusetts Audubon site in Worcester, but the largest urban wildlife sanctuary in New England.

Broad Meadow Brook Visitor and Conservation Center

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

Broad Meadow Brook Visitor and Conservation Center

With a small staff — running above one dozen, but below 20 employees, many of those part-time — utilizing volunteers has become not only an asset, but something of a necessity at the sanctuary. Currently, Broad Meadow Brook holds two formal sessions, a weekly volunteer program from 10 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays, and one from 9 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of every month.

It was during one of the Wednesday sessions last month that Cass, the 8-year-old, and I found ourselves meeting from afar, and why I had visited Broad Meadow Brook once before, similarly dressed, and finding that a necktie does not suit well for a lot of genuflecting in nature.

True to form, it is a bustling crowd the second morning I arrive. Campers are being herded between events, though the supply of their energy never seems challenged by how much they are outside walking the trails, or breathing in the fresh air under tents that had been inspected by volunteers earlier that morning.

Utilizing volunteers is not just a means of maintaining the site for proper use, but also to build the sanctuary into a fixture known to, and incorporated into, the lives of residents of Worcester and surrounding towns.

“We want to be engaged with the community,” says Martha Gach, the conservation coordinator at Broad Meadow Brook who, like most of the staff, exudes a calmness that produces warmth. “We recognize that there is no way the paid staff can do everything that we need to do here, and we also recognize that people want to be involved and this is a way to do that.”

Broad Meadow Brook

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

Broad Meadow Brook

Joe Choiniere, the property manager of Broad Meadow Brook, concurs. “I certainly have those days when I go home and say ‘Wow, I would have been here until nine o’clock if it hadn’t been for those people,” he says. “Some days the lists are long, so I would bet others feel the way I do.”

By way of social momentum, high frequency of return, or a combination of the two, the volunteer program has maintained itself year-round as a fixture of Broad Meadow Brook.

“The Wednesday volunteer program is always very robust,” Gach said, noting that the monthly Saturday sessions are thinner than their weekly counterparts.

“I think they are recreating with their families on Saturdays,” Gach says, conceding with levity that “if they are teenagers, they are probably sleeping in.”

One individual bucking this lazy days of summer trend was Haley Fong of Berlin, volunteering for her third week in a row at Broad Meadow Brook. She wore more traditional garb for this type of affair: shorts; a T-shirt; sneakers. She was dragging a hose across the parking lot, toward a tree with a green bag wrapped around its trunk.

Like most volunteers here, Fong held a natural affinity toward nature and the environment for years prior to turning to Broad Meadow Brook. “It’s just nice to get outside,” she says. “I figure I’m not doing much else, so I just thought it would be a good thing to do.”

Haley Fong, left, and Karmen Diep were among the recent Wednesday volunteers.

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

Haley Fong, left, and Karmen Diep were among the recent Wednesday volunteers.

Her tasks have thus far ranged from general groundskeeping, to weeding and watering, to today’s activity of filling tree bags to ensure consistent watering. Over the course of time, Fong says her confidence has changed regarding such work.

“For the first couple times I had to ask around,” she says, “even with the water bags. I was like, ‘Oh man, there’s a hole in it,’ but I was just putting the hose in the wrong one.”

For moments like these, and for early arrivals, the staff at Broad Meadow Brook executes a balance of observation and calmness.

“When people first start, if they are not [experienced] we sort of keep an eye on them, we supervise them and we will get a level of independence,” says Gach. “Then we gauge the tasks to support the volunteer.”

The latter feature goes naturally with the job itself, says Gach, observing “a sense of humor really helps, and just knowing that you could say something, and people could take it six different ways with totally different outcomes, and maybe that’s OK.”

For the regular and uninitiated alike, the first source of direction is through a list placed just within the visitors center for even unintended volunteers to see. The list is compiled by four main actors at Broad Meadow Brook: Gach; Choiniere; Sheryl Farnam, the administrative assistant; and sanctuary director Deborah Cary.

Each figure tends to their own portion of the list, minding the weekly regular activities including filling birdfeeders, folding and placing what can amount to hundreds of trail maps in one of the sanctuary’s many kiosks, clearing trails of any fallen roughage, and cleaning the visitor center’s windows.

The volunteer board

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

The volunteer board

Complementing the standard elements of the list are specialized items, often signaled by a “see” followed by a staff member’s name.

It was this first regular activity — filling birdfeeders — to which I was attached a few weeks prior. The activity was simple enough, with feeders color-coded to corresponding tins within the annals of the visitor center. Somehow, I was left alone, attempting to keep tidy as I tried to resist the urges of Googling what “thistle seed” was or determining the proprietary blend that made up “mixed yellow seed” as I filled each birdfeeder and returned them hanging outside.

In short, it is true that volunteering at Broad Meadow Brook can indeed be experienced by all.

Returning a few weeks later, and looking back at the board, the list was notably comprehensive — if not highly specific — and ranged from the typical “Fill Feeders” to “Weed in front of the Visitor Center (leave the milkweed).” Having done the former a few weeks prior, and not knowing what particularly differentiated “milkweed” from just “weeds” — or grass for that matter — it seemed prudent to see if the comprehension on the board reflected the actuality on the ground.

What's this thistleseed, anyway?

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

What’s this thistleseed, anyway?

There I went to the toolshed, where, as the board had indicated, the tools were aligned, hung and sorted with delicacy, but where the watering cans in contrast formed a bit of a disorganized protest on the floor.

On this particular day, however, individuals were bustling largely to resettle plants for the  sanctuary’s ninth annual Barbara J. Walker Butterfly Festival, including Cass and her mother, both knee deep and dirt crusted from a second day of volunteering. The festival is planned for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13.

The phenomenon of attracting volunteers through special events or projects is not something particularly foreign to Broad Meadow Brook.

Walking through the sanctuary itself, boardwalks cover what would otherwise be intransient land, put down by volunteers themselves.

In total, there are 305 posts along the so-called “sensory trail,” each perfectly leveled, each at a depth of 22 inches, and each exhibiting the dedication and work ethic of the volunteers who worked to see the project completed in full.

“The guy who was doing his Eagle Scout [Project] thought he could get it done in a weekend,” says Gach, who along with her other duties oversees and coordinates group volunteering. “We started in June … our opening was Sept. 12 [and] we just got it done for that.”

Along with the Eagle Scout, Broad Meadow Brook hosted groups ranging from National Grid employees to Saint John’s High School representatives to work alongside unaffiliated volunteers in order to complete the project through the sweltering heat of a Massachusetts summer.

Broad Meadow Brook Sensory Trail

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

Broad Meadow Brook Sensory Trail

“It took a lot of patience,” says Gach, who was seated by an air-conditioner between hours-long shifts outside, tending to the Butterfly Garden.

The staff’s perseverance and calmness allow for volunteers to contribute efficiently in a positive work environment that benefits all sides.

Broad Meadow Brook’s volunteer program serves as a gateway for individuals to not only expose themselves to nature more fully, but equally, to itch potential scratches they hold in life.

“I meet lots and lots of people who say, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this thing, but never had the opportunity,’ and within, like, two weeks their aptitude is [increased] and they just pick it up and get going,” says Choiniere. He noted the variety of volunteers provides a means to further connect the workers themselves to the community the sanctuary serves.

In some instances, it is the novice and not the expert — what with their own particularities and practices around going about things — that prove the easiest to work with.

Volunteers “connect us to the real world, all personalities, all types of professions, all walks of life,” Choiniere says. “It just makes me feel like we are inclusive, so we can relate to anything anytime because we have such an inclusive group of volunteers.”

This inclusivity extends beyond bringing aboard the curious novice or appreciator of nature, but also those who may otherwise find themselves isolated from parts of society or distinct parts of themselves.

The former is found most directly in the various social groups that attend the weekly volunteer sessions, such as Alternatives Unlimited, a Whitinsville-based group servicing adults with psychiatric or developmental disabilities throughout Central Massachusetts.

Having been brought into the Broad Meadow Brook volunteer program through Cary, the sanctuary director, by way of their Worcester Advisory Council, a small cohort of Alternatives attendants and staff arrive early and often take directly to the trails, lightly cleaning them while refilling trail maps for others.

According to Alternatives spokesperson Liz Mirabelli Nye, participation in this program revolves around a simple but profound concept. “Those who attend are supported as they build a variety of different skills at the program and out in the community,” she says.

For others, volunteering offers a moment to recapture and retain their trades over time. Wednesdays, and often days after, Choiniere deploys a contingent of volunteers consisting of electricians, carpenters, plumbers and other tradesmen in specialized tasks — things that the staff at Broad Meadow Brook would otherwise have to dedicate excessive amounts of time toward, or are simply not in their immediate wheelhouse.

An information station at the sanctuary.

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

An information station at the sanctuary.

In these instances, and for individuals like Gene Croteau, a now-retired electrician at age 66, to find what he calls “satisfaction of helping them out.” Beginning his volunteering 25 years prior at Broad Meadow Brook, Croteau would take a self-described 20-year hiatus before finding himself back to work cleaning trails, installing air conditioners and performing other “little odds and ends.”

“I get satisfaction that the kids are getting out on the trails,” he says. “I like to make sure that the trails are nice, and neat, and safe for them.”

That sense of inward motivation is not lost on those who tend the grounds at Broad Meadow Brook every day.

“For me personally, it’s extremely motivating to just have people willing to share expertise and time, and for me, it bolsters my work itself,” says Choiniere, who had just recently paused our interview to help a group properly open a table’s umbrella.

“It gives me momentum, keeps me going.”

Broad Meadow Brook hosts volunteers every Wednesday between 10 a.m. and noon, and on the first Saturday of each month between 9 a.m. and noon. Groups are requested to notify staff in advance of arrival.

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