How environmental volunteer opportunities take people outside of themselves
Eriko Kojima readily admits that she used to be a couch potato. “I was an indoorsy person. I didn’t like to exercise, and I had bouts of depression,” she says. Then, one July day in 2015, she went on a hike and learned that the Forest Preserves of Cook County was looking for volunteers. So she signed up to spend three hours at Somme Woods in Northbrook, gathering seeds that would eventually be sown to restore habitats.
The Forest Preserves is one of many organizations throughout the Chicago area focused on protecting and enhancing the region’s diverse natural spaces — from the lake and rivers to the forests and prairies. Volunteer activities include controlling invasive species, cleaning up the beaches, wildlife monitoring, and more.
Volunteering in this way benefits an individual’s physical and mental well-being, as well as the environment. This makes it perfect for people who also feel the weight of eco-anxiety, defined as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations,” according to the American Psychological Association.
Kojima, who lives in Winnetka, began her volunteer work with the Forest Preserves by collecting cow parsnip seeds in a paper bag.
As a first-timer, she didn’t notice that the dew on the vegetation around her was making the bag wet, causing the bottom to fall out. The seeds she had collected fell to the ground. Undaunted, Kojima picked them up and put them into another bag.
At this point, Kojima didn’t see her group anymore and realized she didn’t know her way back to their meeting place. Her instinct put her on the right path, and she soon joined the other volunteers at a table prepping seeds.
“I was embarrassed, but I sat down with them, and no one noticed I had had a problem,” she says. “The kindness of the people, the opportunity to learn the names of plants, the sensory experience of touching the seeds, and the privilege of going off-trail — which is so rare — were surprising and delightful.”
Kojima’s experience reflects some of the benefits of volunteering in nature. But taking the first step can be tough. “The brain tries to avoid new things, so you have to overcome that fear of the unknown,” says Debra Kissen, PhD, clinical psychologist and CEO of Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Centers. “You have to figure out what gives you vitality by trial and error.”
Sarah Warren is a clinical psychologist and founder of ARC Professional Group. She notes that finding a community of volunteers that all care about the same issue — such as the environment — combats social isolation and makes a contribution to fighting climate change. “One of the best antidotes to eco-anxiety is to get involved with an organization that addresses the cause in a meaningful way,” she says.
During training sessions and hands-on activities, volunteers learn more about the issue they’re working on and acquire new skills. “Volunteers can also become a catalyst by spreading information and awareness and convincing others to get involved with volunteering to combat climate change,” Warren says. Young people reap an additional benefit because they learn to use their voice in a powerful way to make change, she adds.
Plus, volunteering in nature provides an opportunity for parents and children to bond with each other and experience physical and psychological benefits of being out in nature.
There are many different ways to volunteer, including group and solitary activities. Kristin DaPra, stewardship program coordinator with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, says that in the fall, volunteers who want to work with a group can help collect seeds of native plants or remove invasive species that prevent native plants from thriving. Volunteers who want a solo experience have options such as Trail Watch or Litter Obliterators.
Kissen says that spending time in nature can evoke a sense of wonder, reduce stress, and have a calming effect. “Nature offers new and novel stimuli that help the brain get unstuck from negative thoughts and emotions,” she says. “When people are enjoying being with others for a common cause, that can have major mental health benefits.”
Kojima’s experience confirms these benefits. At age 60, she has partly retired from her work as a Japanese-English conference interpreter, and she continues to volunteer for the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
“Volunteering was a whole new world, and I was hooked on it right away. It has improved my psyche, so I don’t sit home and mope anymore,” she says.
Kojima is now a forest preserve stewardship volunteer and collaborates with other volunteers on a daily basis to increase native biodiversity and protect threatened wildlife. She also engages in conversations within her community to spread the word about the ecological accomplishments of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and to encourage others who want to volunteer.
She says she has developed friendships with kindred spirits, especially with her forest preserve mentor. “We can think globally,” the former self-proclaimed couch potato says, “and work locally.”
Here are six local organizations that offer options for volunteering in nature.
Alliance for the Great Lakes:
Formed in 1970, this organization focuses on protecting the Great Lakes, which account for 21% of Earth’s fresh surface water. www.greatlakes.org
Chicago Park District: Environmental volunteer opportunities include park cleanups, tree mulching, and Earth Day events. www.chicagoparkdistrict.com
Forest Preserves of Cook County: Volunteers work among the preserves’ 70,000 acres of woodland, prairie, and wetland year round. https://fpdcc.com
Friends of the Chicago River: Centered on improving the health of the 156-mile Chicago River system, for people, plants, and animals. www.chicagoriver.org
Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves: Access a list of volunteer workdays in a variety of Illinois’ nature preserves. https://friendsofillinoisnaturepreserves.org
Openlands: From its TreeKeeper Certification Course to its native tree and plant sale, Openlands is one of the largest over-arching conservancy organizations in Chicago, with many volunteer opportunities and trainings. https://openlands.org
Top image: Eriko Kojima. Photo by Kris DaPra
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 print issue.