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To Get the Health Benefits of Being Outdoors, Volunteer

Benefit yourself and others by volunteering outdoors. Remember these six things to make your gig a success.

 Hero Images/Getty Images
Hero Images/Getty Images,

by Kara Baskin

Well-Being
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The health benefits of volunteering are enormous. According to a recent report from the Corporation for National & Community Service, volunteering is linked with lower mortality rates, increased physical and mental health, greater life satisfaction, and a sense of purpose. Volunteer service outdoors is especially impactful. Fresh air, exposure to sunlight, and physical activity are just a few of the health benefits. Taking the pledge to volunteer is a modest change that pays major dividends throughout your life.

Sounds great, but how do you get started? It might be daunting: What if you’re not athletic? What if you love the outdoors—but don’t know if you want to build a house or lead nature walks?

Nicole Veltre has community service ideas. This Maryland-based middle-school science teacher longed to expose her inner-city students to a broad, nature-based curriculum. She connected with Sierra Club Inspiring Connections Outdoors, which provides underserved youth with outdoor experiences like camping and cycling. Now, Veltre speaks frequently on behalf of the organization and about volunteering outside.

Think about what you enjoyed as a child—or as an adult—and consider how to share and translate those meaningful outdoor experiences for others.

Nicole Veltre

Whether you want to clean up parks or run scavenger hunts at a summer camp, here’s how to make your volunteer work a success.

1. Position your volunteering mission against the framework of your life. Veltre’s role as a science teacher made her work with the ICO a natural fit, and she could see a logical connection between her volunteer work and her career. “Some of my students didn’t know where French fries came from because they’d never seen a potato,” she says. The synergy gave her momentum to stick with it.

2. Consider opportunities that require special certification or training. With this kind of commitment, says Veltre, you’re more likely to keep it up. “Volunteering has to be sustainable for you,” she says. “Sometimes people treat volunteering like a first date. They show up once and never come back. Don’t underestimate your impact: An event that might be small is often life-changing for the people you’re helping.” Your presence matters.

3. Think about non-traditional ways to get involved with a group you admire. Maybe you aren’t up for leading hikes, but you could help run a hiking organization’s website—and show up for a stroll once a month. Maybe you’re not great with archery or swimming, but you could help handle billing for a local summer camp. Think about ways to make your volunteerism manageable and therefore sustainable.

4. Choose an organization or activity that has personal meaning to you. Veltre grew up on a watershed and spent her childhood skipping rocks and exploring anthills. Her work exposing teens to nature draws on her own formative years. Think about what you enjoyed as a child—or as an adult—and consider how to share and translate those meaningful outdoor experiences for others.

5. Be flexible and tolerant. Especially if you’re embarking on an active endeavor, be aware of your group’s limitations, says Veltre. People will have various abilities. Don’t let this frustrate you. She likens it to having people over for dinner. “You don’t want to decide what to serve when you hear the doorbell ring,” she says. Understand your group’s limitations and needs before starting work.

6. Remember that even a little means a lot. These days, Veltre volunteers about three hours per week because it works for her schedule. But she packs plenty of adventure with her students into that time, and the kids benefit from it far longer.  Even if you can only spare a bit of time—whether you’re outdoors orindoors—remember that the benefits are long-term.