On a warm autumn day in 2010, I was among about a dozen kayakers — from college students to retirees — who landed on South Brother Island, one of New York City's most exclusive pieces of real estate. Normally off-limits to visitors, it's a seven-acre clump of sand and gneiss that is raw and, to my eyes, nearly idyllic.
Our motley mix had volunteered to clean up South Brother under the direction of New York City Department of Parks and Recreation naturalists and the American Littoral Society, a coastal protection group. We hunched down to fill more than 50 bags with storm-tossed trash as well as tires, televisions and other oddities, like a large bottle filled with hypodermic needles. Then we boated it all to the Bronx for recycling.
Visiting Unexpected Places
Being a green volunteer can bring you to unexpected places. In my case, volunteering to make New York Harbor more accessible and enjoyable brought me back to my roots. My forefathers were mariners in Fryslan, Netherlands, for untold generations. My grandfather, a child stowaway to New York City, lived on the family tugboat with his maternal uncle, Capt. Dirk Van den Baard.
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My initial encounter with the water came through my job writing about electricity markets for Dow Jones Newswires in 1996. Turns out, our newsroom was housed in an old Pennsylvania Railroad terminus serving Jersey City’s ferries and shipping companies. I often wondered if my family had steered cargo into the complex. I bought a kayak with one of my first paychecks and sometimes commuted from Manhattan by paddle.
In 2005, I started volunteering at the nonprofit Downtown Boathouse dock in Manhattan, teaching others how to kayak. Although my first seasons as a paddler were fun, they lacked a certain, well, depth for me. I knew I was never going to measure up to my family legacy by playing in ferry wakes, but thought I could perhaps claim my rightful spot in the lineage by performing important environmental work.
Remembering 9/11 Victims
After 9/11, I co-founded a floating lantern ceremony on the Hudson River that became the signature event of the Interfaith Center of New York, a group that fosters cooperation between religions. The ceremony, originally a Buddhist rite of remembrance, was embraced as a beautiful means of honoring those lost in the World Trade Center attacks.
In 2005, I founded the Long Island City Community Boathouse to open the East River to lower-income kids, perform services (like the South Brother Island cleanup) and initiate City of Water Day, our region’s largest annual harbor festival.
I'm confident that these volunteering efforts earned me my salty patrimony. My grandfather would be proud of what I've accomplished, even if he might shake his head at the financial sacrifice, since my projects have increasingly eaten into my paid hours as a freelance writer and photographer.
Volunteering Efforts Ashore
Yet I'm not done — and in recent years my volunteering efforts have landed me ashore.
Researching the Newtown Creek, a local U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, I learned about the Newtown Pippin, New York City’s historic apple. That knowledge blossomed into my launching the Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration in 2008, which focused on planting apple orchards throughout New York. That initiative has since grown into Gotham Orchards, the city’s largest dedicated fruit orchard project.
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By the end of 2012, neighborhood partners and I will have planted more than 1,000 fruit trees across all five boroughs, thanks to New York Restoration Project and other sponsors. For this orchard work and my other volunteer ventures, the state government designated me "The Greenest New Yorker" in 2011.
How to Become a Green Volunteer
If you'd like to become a green volunteer, start small. Begin by finding hobbyist groups and civic associations — they'll be happy to tell you about your area's needs.
Once you get the hang of the often-quirky dynamics of the free-labor market, you’ll start envisioning new services to offer. And using today’s social media, you can gather supporters around a good idea almost instantly.
Science fiction author Robert Heinlein remarked that once you’ve gotten up to Earth orbit, you’re “halfway to anywhere.” One could say the same about what happens the moment you’ve committed to making the world a better place.
I hope my story helps inspire you to get involved — soon, you might find yourself "halfway to anywhere."