“Conservation Halton…that’s an interesting organization.”

With those words over hot coffee on a cold rainy day this past spring, a friend listened with interest to my excited ramble about how I had applied to Conservation Halton’s Volunteer Core. He wondered out loud what a “Science and Partnerships Volunteer Core” was and if I recall correctly, offered that there was said to be a lot of damage in the local watersheds as a result of the flooding accompanying the rains that seemed to persist daily.  He was right, and also added that he was starting to learn more deeply about, and act upon the climate crisis that was once only a prediction to many of us.

I was notified of my selection to the volunteer core program on May 31 through an email from Sasha Benevides, Community Outreach Coordinator at Conservation Halton. It didn’t take long for me to realize that at Conservation Halton there is an infectious attitude that says that all challenges are best met with quiet confidence, skill, and focusing on doing things the right way. Was that what my friend meant by “interesting”?

As someone who, in their career, has coordinated volunteer programs of many types, I was struck by the thorough training and orientation required for volunteers. A program that parallels some of the training that is provided to staff creates a common bond and understanding between staff and volunteers. The staff are so in tune with the idea of volunteers as partners in achieving program goals that one never feels any sense of “us and them”.

Once we had been trained, volunteers were regularly informed of project opportunities, most of which involved working in the field with staff from the Ecology Team. At this point, I have to admit that I was starting to feel a bit nervous. As a person in his sixties, I have always had a great appreciation for the need to protect the environment and participate in outdoor activities but I had little experience related directly to this sort of fieldwork.  It is also worth noting that our volunteer core was made up of a cross section of folks both young and motivated to learn, some with goals of working in the conservation field themselves, and older with lots of relevant experience.  Could I learn fast enough to keep up with these qualified teammates?

It turns out that a combination of teamwork and  leadership by staff resulted in an experience like nothing previously in my life. We weren’t there to be experts. Conservation Halton takes care of that with professionals that are passionate about their work. Our role was to leverage their efforts by adding a skilled, energetic and committed work team to projects that ecologists and other staff often work at alone for months. Volunteers with an academic interest in a particular aspect of the work were provided with all of the added information that they needed and sometimes were included in a related project to further their growth as volunteers and perhaps someday as professionals in the field.

I particularly appreciated the times when our staff team leaders would stop us and point to a forest plant or creature and ask “Does anyone know what this is?” It was the frosting on the cake for us to be there in a special or protected habitat, doing our work, and then also to be offered an education on these unique surroundings. And this didn’t end in the field. Often, at the office, where we would meet to carpool to a work site, field staff passing by one another on the way to their projects would do the same. “Have you ever seen this before?” Conservation Halton is, at its foundation, a learning organization and this is evident each day.

The projects that we worked on as volunteer core members ranged from invasive species management to beaver dam removal —I made a real splash at that one! We assisted with interesting and important projects in streams, wetlands, tree plantings, public workshops, a water festival, a forest festival, monitoring, installations, and more. At last check, there were almost 500 hours of volunteer service provided by the volunteer core to Conservation Halton initiatives.

So, what is it like to work on a project with the volunteer core? One project we worked on was removing an invasive species. We met at the Conservation Halton offices on Britannia Road, and then discussed the project with our staff leader Chelsea McIsaac. For that day, we headed to the Glenorchy Conservation Area, a nearly 1,000 acre protected area that Conservation Halton manages. The plan was to remove common buckthorn, an invasive species, that had crept in thanks to the shaded canopy created by the oaks. Our goal was to eliminate the seed sources of the buckthorn, so that native species can repopulate the woodlot. The woodlot is adjacent to two fields that Conservation Halton had restored into tall grass prairies. Chelsea told us that the woodlot is a good example of what the landscape used to look like before it was cleared for farming.

It was a hot day and we were all thankful for shade provided by the oaks. We used extratigators and handsaws to remove the buckthorn. (Hand tools were always the best solution at these sites. No CO2 emissions—only perspiration!). Similar to her colleagues, Chelsea told us what we needed to know, slugged equipment, and when we were done she took us on a tour of her favourite parts of this evolving conservation area.

My personal ambitions when applying to the volunteer core were to become more knowledgeable about sustainable trails and to lend a hand in protecting our environment —both against the backdrop of climate change, which is a subject that  have read about extensively but have felt somewhat useless in acting upon. So far, this experience has enabled me to contribute in a tangible way to mitigating the effects of climate change. I have also been able to expand beyond my volunteer core membership and join the operations team at Mountsberg Conservation Area as a new volunteer, where I work with yet another skilled and dedicated group of professionals.

Conservation Halton is an interesting organization and it’s the people who make it that way.  I am glad to have been part of the Science and Partnerships Volunteer Core since June and am truly looking forward to the next projects!

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Last modified: November 29, 2017

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