I spent last week with my 16-year-old grandson, Julian, and a group of Sierra Club volunteers in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont – and while I’m sorry to say we did not have quite as transformative a time as I’d dreamed we would (despite how much I enjoyed being with my grandson and the other volunteers), I am still discovering unexpected benefits days after I got home. Overall, our week in the woods seems to have been well worth the triggering of my anopheliphobia*
I took my biological children on a volunteer vacation a dozen years ago, when they were 16 and 14, and we all found the experience life-changing and inspiring. We helped build a house in the Dominican Republic with a youthful Habitat for Humanity team of mostly
30-somethings. We were surrounded each day by adorable Dominican children who excitedly welcomed us to read, draw, or play ball games with
them whenever we took a break from the hard, hot work we were doing mixing cement or laying masonry blocks. For dinners, we walked to simple, local restaurants and ate til we were bursting, our bodies hungry for more fuel to compensate for the extreme labor we were doing during the day; sometimes we went dancing afterward to local music.
At night, we slept in an extremely low-budget motel that nevertheless featured an ancient air conditioner, flushing toilet and weak shower in each room. When we needed anything, townspeople were beyond gracious, giving us rides, bargaining in Spanish to get us better prices, thanking us for being there. We were struck most by the extreme warmth of the Dominican people and by their ability to find happiness in any circumstance. I know none of us ever viewed our own privilege the same way again.
I would have loved to take my grandson on a similar adventure, but I haven’t worked outside the home for two years now. Driving to Vermont to work with the Sierra Club cost less than a quarter of what it would have cost for us to help Habitat build a home in another country (yet still ate up a third of all the savings I had left, a worry for another column). Besides, I love being in nature, and I thought the act of giving our time and muscle to help make forestry improvements would feel rewarding in its own way. Most of all, I was excited to spend a week camping with my grandson, whom I hadn’t seen in a year and a half.
The time with Julian exceeded my hopes; what a treasure he is! He’s grown up into a thoughtful, handsome young man with hopes of becoming a math teacher, his voice now deep and his upper lip dusted in downy dark hair. We played lots of games together—Mastermind, Battleship, and Cribbage—allowing him to show off his quick logic and execution of strategy with masterful, winning displays. Though I’d always thought of him as shy, he readily participated in all the ice-breaker and team-building exercises and made us laugh with the humor in his answers. He was the youngest person there by 37 years and I was the next youngest, at 53, by at least another 10, but he was always happy to participate in the group meals and activities. He jumped up to help the cook fetch water from a far-off pump without anyone even asking, and he threw himself into our work assignments with energy and no complaints. (He even learned to make chili! Parents needing dinner made, take note.)
I loved most when we climbed into the tent at night and lay side by side talking into the dark; Julian’s a good listener who absorbs and contemplates, sometimes coming up with insights into earlier conversations days later, surprising me with his depth.
As with all three of my grandchildren, I’ve known this boy since the moment he was born, as I stood by Amy’s and Brian’s sides in the delivery room. I’ve watched as he was doted on by my tween children as a toddler, especially during our family trip to Disney World when he was three. I saw him gain courage as he moved from scared kindergartner to “talented and gifted” student. I worried when he struggled to make friends when he first moved to South Carolina, then was reassured to see him with a good friend group in junior high. At 13, he read poetry at my wedding — and then three weeks later read another poem at my son’s funeral; he was a quiet comfort to me during the worst of my mourning.
And this year I’ve been overjoyed seeing how happy he and his beautiful girlfriend are with one another; he was looking forward to going to church with her and her family the morning after he flew home. I basically couldn’t be prouder of him and am so grateful to him and his parents that I had this week to get to know his new, more adult self better.
Meanwhile, unfortunately, the work we were asked to do—removing plastic tubing from a mountain side, pulling photo-toxic weeds from a forest entrance, stripping paint from picnic tables that needed repainting, hanging camping site numbers on posts—felt like busy work rather than an invaluable contribution. The weeds we pulled were ubiquitous on every road side, so our pulling them for eight hours felt like it couldn’t possibly matter (though I understand we were helping to keep them from spreading past that one entrance deeper into the forest). I couldn’t shake the suspicion that if we weren’t doing the work, someone else would do it – or it would go undone, which didn’t feel like it would much matter. Also, our fellow volunteers were all over 60 (the cook was nearly 80!) and needed early bedtimes, so we enjoyed only brief nighttime activities (and were chided the night we stayed up a little later to make our own campfire). We also had to volunteer for two shifts of helping the cook, an unexpected task that cut into our already limited down time.
“If only we could be greeted by some cheering Dominican kids,” Julian deadpanned after hearing about my previous volunteer trip, “maybe we would feel this work was meaningful, too.”
Our camping and working conditions were the greatest challenge. We shared a tiny tent that let water soak in the sides and sop our sleeping bags the night it poured rain. There were no sinks, no showers and no flushing toilets for at least 30 miles. Our central campsite was beside a swampy bog infested with mosquitoes, prompting me to cover myself head to toe in a spacesuit-like mosquito-netting outfit that left me sweaty, grouchy and challenged in bringing food or water to my net-covered mouth. Our work sites were in equally deep-woods areas, and I couldn’t understand how some of the volunteers walked around with their faces exposed when my own face was surrounded the entire day by whining insects trying (unsuccessfully, thank god) to get past my netting. (Julian refused to wear the screen suit I bought him and spent much of his time slapping mosquitoes between his palms when they flew around his face; his knees still got eaten alive, though, poor kid.) The meals felt a bit like a survival-of-the-fittest test, as there was never quite enough food to go around, so if you didn’t grab your share early, you were likely to find the main course and side dishes mostly gone. And there was very little down time built into the trip for journaling, reading, or thinking.
There were no group campfires except the one I arranged at our site. When I planned to take Julian for a lake outing on our day off, I was told we had to stay in groups of three for safety purposes, even on our time off, though I could find no mention of this rule in any of the materials we were given. (This wound up not being enforced but left us worried for the first half of the trip that we would never be allowed to spend time alone.) Our group leader, though well-intentioned, was a bit pedantic. When he ordered me to “Get to bed early!” when announcing breakfast would be served two and a half hours before we were starting our volunteer work the next day, I had to bite my tongue so as not to set an argumentative example for my humble, polite, deferential grandson.
No one wants to be the complainer on a volunteer trip, so I tried to follow Julian’s no-negativity example and enjoy our new friendships with the other volunteers. Among them was a Vietnam vet with MS who told me vets suffer from that disease and ALS at much higher rates than the civilian population (who knew?); a retired nurse who is working to save chimney swifts as their habitat is destroyed in her local community; a couple, a retired teacher and still-practicing professional pianist who has played at Carnegie Hall, who have no cell phones but have camped all over the country and were doing their eighth service trip; our 78-year-old cook, who flew in from Chicago to make the trip possible after the previous cook had to drop out; and the only other woman who wore a screen around her head most of the time–yet was on her 24th Sierra Club service trip. (!) They were all people with rich lives who were using their vacation time and dollars to save the environment and improve life for campers and forest creatures, and Julian and I felt inspired just being in their company. Which, now that the trip is over and I am not struggling against bug bites, rain and hunger, means maybe we deserve to feel a little good about what we accomplished there, as well.
As with most endeavors to make change, our little efforts seem like a plink in the bucket, but knowing we contributed to the 27,000 hours of volunteer service provided by the Sierra Club around the world each year feels pretty good. (Click here for more information about Sierra Club volunteer vacations or here for an overview of our trip specifically. )
Possibly promising “outdoor ecstasy” in the event name may have been overselling the experience just a bit, but the long-term benefits are still hitting me. Last night when I took the dog out to pee in my quiet backyard, I heard all kinds of hooting sounds and peepers chorusing and stood listening for several minutes, amazed I’d never noticed all the animals teeming and calling in the grass and trees right near my home. Being in the woods for a week with people who cared about those animals, who could identify which kinds of birds and frogs and chipmunks were singing and calling, people who paid attention to what kind of trees and plants were growing around us, heightened my own perception of the natural world. I feel opened up to nature in a subtle but deeper way for having spent a week with true nature lovers — even if there was no dancing.
Julian, I’m not sure you had quite the college-essay-level experience we fantasized before we went, but you gave me a great week of fun and restored my faith in myself as a grandma at a time when I really needed it. Even though you are in the bloom of first love and your summer vacation had just begun, you didn’t hesitate to say yes to my offer to drop everything and come on this trip, and that was remarkable in itself. I was grateful to feel the love I’ve poured into you all your life flowing right back at me, something I found extra special coming from a 16-year-old boy. Thank you for being such a sweet, unspoiled kid – and for all the ways you inspire me. I look forward to seeing you again later this summer when I go have my experience (whatever we decide it will be) with your brother, Logan. Your parents should be very proud of both of you.
* anopheliphobia is a fear of itch-inducing insect bites.