The 26-hour day: where do busy volunteers find the time?
Sure, some Sierra Club volunteers are retired or between jobs, or have unusually flexible schedules - but a lot of volunteers have typical full-time jobs, often with family obligations, yet find the time to be active regular volunteers. How do they do it? Below are the tales of several of these hard-working heroes.
For over two decades Steve Kirby has taught hundreds of West Contra Costa elementary school students, guiding his charges through a standard curriculum and introducing them to nature and civic activities. During the past 15 summers he developed, taught, and now administers the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education's Academic Talent Development Program, helping third-graders invent and produce simple machines.
So what - besides preparing lesson plans and reading student projects - does Steve do with his evenings and weekends? Sometimes he plays golf and guitar, acts in civic theater, indulges his loves of scuba diving and photography, and presides over his homeowners' association. And he finds the time to be a member of the Sierra Club's West County Group Executive Committee and the Club project coordinator for Hercules.
An El Cerrito native, Steve moved to Hercules in 1988, and soon began battling the Goliaths of development in west Contra Costa County. With the Sierra Club and a local advocacy group, Steve wrote and campaigned for a successful initiative to protect fragile Franklin Canyon. The current Goliath is Wal-Mart, which seems to be rethinking its proposal for a giant superstore in Hercules. Steve has also been fighting to protect the Refugio Creek Watershed, including the waterfront area.
This past year Steve and his students planted a garden and went on some interpretive walks of the Refugio watershed. He also hopes to initiate environmental studies at the middle- and high-school levels in Hercules, encouraging teenagers to participate in some clean-up activities.
Steve has been able to combine his professional and activist lives by living, working, and campaigning close to home, and by involving his students in environmental activities.
Carlyn Obringer works full-time for a educational-reform non-profit and co-chairs the Contra Costa Commission for Women (an appointment by the county Board of Supervisors). She is secretary of the Democratic Party of Contra Costa, vice-president of the Lamorinda Democratic Club, columnist for its on-line publication, and precinct-walker and phone-banker for the Democratic party during election periods. And she finds the time to serve on the Sierra Club's Mount Diablo Group Executive Committee.
Carlyn and her husband live in Concord, and she initially signed on as a Club activist because of her concern about development of the 10,000-acre Concord Naval Weapons Station. To help the community understand development's consequences for wildlife, traffic, and emissions, she has spoken up at city meetings, "advertised" at farmers' markets, and written letters to editors.
How does she manage all her different obligations? It helps to have "a very supportive husband", Carlyn admits, who is accommodating of her hectic schedule and picks up the slack.
As if his full-time job (he is a technical-support manager for Kontiki, a software start-up company in Mountain View), his two-county commute, and his 11-year-old son don't keep him busy enough, Vinnie Bacon is also running for the Fremont City Council on a platform emphasizing environmental concerns, education, and historic preservation. Vinnie's first in-depth encounter with politics was through his environmental volunteer work, in particular his work on the Southern Alameda Group's Executive Committee and his five-year membership on the Bay Chapter's Political Committee.
A bird-watcher and photographer who treasures Coyote Hills Regional Park, Vinnie became concerned about the proposal to develop the Patterson Ranch and the Cargill salt ponds, wildlife-rich areas adjacent to the park. Serving as a liaison between the Sierra Club and the local "Friends of Coyote Hills and Fremont", Vinnie was able to use his computer and camera skills in the 2006 campaign for Measure K to protect Patterson Ranch, photographing endangered land and wildlife to publicize the problems and working on the campaign's web site. Although the measure was defeated, he continued to approach local politicians, but concluded that the Fremont City Council wasn't committed to protecting its undeveloped lands. If he wins, he hopes to combine his Sierra Club goals with his goals as a member of the City Council.
To squeeze more into his days, Vinnie dovetails his political and environmental activities and employs the professional and personal expertise he already has.
Northern Alameda County Group chair Kent Lewandowski has been willing to make time for his environmental activity because the stakes are so high. "Without activism, the Club is not visible in the community," says Kent, who hopes that members of all ages and situations will consider volunteering. Even though the work is at times overwhelming, it is "rewarding, without question," and the volunteers "do get appreciation from time to time!"
About three years ago Kent moved to Oakland from Wisconsin - and immediately noticed the poor air quality. A health-care data contractor for Kaiser, he signed up with the Sierra Club and began attending the meetings of the Northern Alameda County Group. He quickly jumped into working to reduce air pollution in West Oakland. He has also become deeply involved in two of the Group's other priority issues, renewable energy and bus rapid transit.
Kent figures that - typical of those who do committee work at the Chapter level - he averages one Sierra Club meeting per week and spends another three to four hours a week on e-mail business for the Club.
Kent commends Kaiser for being "very accommodating to its employees who are engaged in their local community."
One advantage of being president and founder of your own company is that you can arrange your schedule to do volunteer work mid-day. One disadvantage is that you are working more hours per day than anyone else in the company!
Trip Allen, founder and president of Energy Anew in San Rafael, a firm that invents and develops large solar-power and resource-recovery systems, is also the father of a six-year-old and a four-year-old. Still he manages to serve on the Executive Committee of the Marin Group and is the Group's representative to the Chapter's Executive Committee.
How has Trip been able to find a place for volunteer work in his busy schedule? He has figured out where he can make the biggest difference - usually areas like landfill reform where he has some expertise and can work efficiently - and if he is asked to volunteer in other areas, he has learned to say no.
Before she had her children, attorney Margot Biehle worked full-time, with a San Francisco law firm, then with emerging companies who needed her legal and business advice, and finally with the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she specialized in water law. Now, though her "paying job" as general counsel for a company that designs green schools and classrooms takes three of her week's days, her five-year-old and three-year-old take a lot more than that. She has also served on the Marin County Democratic Central Committee and the Marin Environmental Housing Collaborative, and currently chairs Emerge California, a political-leadership training program for women Democrats running for office. Still she has continued to offer her services to the Sierra Club, serving as vice chair of the Marin Group Executive Committee and co-chair of its Water and Political Committees. She has helped organize environmental events like last winter's "Conservation through Cultivation" workshop to encourage Marin County residents to practice water conservation in their own gardens.
Margot doesn't pretend that juggling all her responsibilities is easy. She feels she may not be able to give 100%, but can still make useful contributions. She is aided in her environmental work, furthermore, by her history with both local environmental issues and the Marin Group Executive Committee.
Why does she, despite the many diversions in her life, continue to volunteer? "It is incredibly important work," she says, "and too often we let others carry the brunt." Also, Margot feels she continues to learn from those who have been around longer than she. "I've always loved to be on the constant upward-learning curve," she adds "and to know I'm doing something."
An additional bonus: although they are too small to understand exactly what she is doing, Margot is a model for her children and can hope Ella and Travis will become part of the next generation to carry on this important tradition.
Some people don't kick off their shoes and relax with a cold drink at the end of every work day or work week. Because they want to make the world a little bit better both for themselves and for those who follow them, they exchange their work caps for volunteer caps, and they settle down to that other job.
You too can be part of the Sierra Club effort. Think about what you can contribute to the effort, and where you might fit it into your busy schedule. You don't need to have a lot of time, and you don't need any particular experience. If everyone pitches in, each in their own way, we can make a big difference in preserving our wildlands and improving the quality of our human environments too. You too can feel the satisfaction of knowing that you're making a difference.
To get started, contact one of the leaders listed throughout this Yodeler. Or if you're not quite sure what you want to do, call Joanne Drabek at (510)848-0800, ext. 315; she's an expert at helping you find the right opening for your interests and availability.