Volunteering at home: accessible for all
My from north-west England identified volunteer experience as key evidence that you can deliver and work within a conservation team. Experience in Seychelles offered unique opportunities to work on globally significant projects for both Kat and myself. But local conservation in our home towns in England has been equally important. Kat volunteered locally when she returned from work abroad. My own first experience of conservation was as a teenager volunteering on a local reserve near Manchester.
I’m now working part-time with The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside on a Forest Schools project in urban Manchester funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. Most of the education team here got their first step through the door as passionate volunteers working on our projects. Kathryn Phillips, one of our Education Officers for the Forest Schools project, talks here about her route from volunteer to staff member and about how engaging children with nature can inspire a future generation of conservationists.
What were your biggest challenges to entering a conservation career after graduating and how did you address them?
The biggest challenge that we all face early on in our careers is needing more experience. You can never have too much experience as a young graduate! The diversity and location of your experiences is important too – nothing helps more than having volunteer experience specific to the organisation and place that you want to work in as a staff member.
To get the experience I needed whilst living at home I looked around on the web for local volunteer
groups, local conservation organisations, and local schemes to get involved. I found the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and was lucky enough to even get a place on a 6 month scheme that included a small weekly stipend to cover my travel and lunches. Lots of our current staff in the education team started their links with the Trust through these very placements.
What were the key success factors in your making the step from volunteer to paid staff?
Networking and showing my worth within the organisation, going above and beyond the call of duty, and getting experience of doing the work well.
I’m naturally quite a shy person too and, like many, found it especially hard to really get across my depth and passion in interviews. It definitely helps when your interviewers for a staff role have already seen you in action in a real work context – they know you can do the job and so recruitment isn’t dependent on dreaded “examples of a time when…” questions.
How can someone find a volunteering role to suit them?
Look online to find out what is happening in the places and the organisations where and with which you want to gain experience. See what’s out there and just get involved with the most practical opportunity to get your foot in the door as a volunteer. Get to know the volunteer coordinator or their equivalent in the organisation. They’ll be passionate about helping you branch out and get new experiences, training opportunities, and maximum impact from your time.
The best advice is to try things. Volunteering is very much a voyage of self-discovery as both a professional and a person. I, for example, thought that practical hands-on conservation management was my goal. I didn’t realise until I encountered environmental education as a volunteer just how interesting it was and how well suited for it I am. Now I’m an education officer for the Trust and it’s what I do!
The Forest Schools project in Manchester is working with under 12s. What difference can the experience make for these children as they become teenagers?
For some it will be the start of a lifelong passion and possibly even a career in the environmental field. For everyone it is a fun experience that gives them the confidence to get muddy, pick up worms, and engage with being outdoors. These formative experiences will help kids value the environment more as teenagers so they will take better care of the world around them.
I hope a few will get involved with the Wildlife Trust, perhaps with our Wildlife Watch clubs for kids and then perhaps as volunteers. One things leads to another and we could be incubating the next David Attenborough here. That’s what the scheme is about – giving opportunities and opening doors that can change the course of these children’s lives.
For students and graduates in the UK, how might they get involved with Forest Schools?
Contact your local Wildlife Trust and see what volunteering opportunities they have. Our education team depends on our fantastic volunteers (and most of our staff used to be volunteers!) so there are definitely openings out there. Have a look around in books and online to find out more about Forest Schools. It’s a broad movement and there are lots of different groups doing lots of different things. Expensive training is available and that might be something you consider – but do get some experience of what Forest Schools are in practice first so you know whether it is right for you.
What potential is there for readers outside the UK to get involved with Forest Schools? I know, for example, that the Wildlife Clubs of Seychelles similarly work to engage children with nature.
Forest Schools is a broad organic movement with multiple separate centres of leadership and energy. The UK, US and Scandinavian movements are perhaps the best known and you will find Forest Schools learning in many countries around the globe. Anyone with internet access can get a good understanding of Forest Schools from the many available resources. Wherever you are there will be various environmental education activities and, even if there are none carrying a formal “Forest Schools” name, some will be very similar in ethos and form. As always with conservation, just make the most of whatever opportunities you get.
Ornithologist Adrian Skerrett talked in our about how, growing up in England, “coral reefs and rainforests were totally out of reach – but birds were right there in front of me”. Wherever you live there is ecology and conservation on your doorstep. The Moston Fairway nature reserve in Manchester, for example, is a former railway sidings that has flourished as an unusual city centre wilderness.
Find out about your local groups, get involved, and make local volunteering that first step in your conservation career.
Adam Moolna was talking to Kathryn Phillips, Education Officer at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Kathryn is working on a in urban Manchester . Adam works part-time as Communications Officer (Forest Schools) for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and also through Giant Tortoise Environment & Conservation Limited. See and on Twitter.