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Volunteer, Give to Free Ideas

What happens when you volunteer? Do you feel enlivened? Do you get when you give, whether you intend to or not? More specifically, do ideas come unbidden when you donate your time and talent?

I asked the last question on social media recently. One person reacted angrily. I guess he assumed I’d never volunteered or had only selfish reasons for doing so. In truth, I’ve volunteered a lot over many years. Two of my paid office positions came from volunteering. As part of both jobs, I supervised volunteers and interns—work I loved. A few years ago, I volunteered to organize other volunteers. To prepare, I read a stack of studies and managerial how-tos.

There are many reasons people give their time. Pure altruism isn’t one I’ve encountered, at least among spiritually mature souls. They know that however selfless their expressed motivations, professional (skills and contacts) and health (physical, mental, and social) benefits accrue from their offering free aid to people and the planet. Some of what volunteers receive can be measured—and has been.

Their saintliness and co-creativity, their net giving, are for a higher force to quantify.

More intriguing in this realm—and what I was trying to uncover on social media—is the mysterious birth of ideas from volunteering. Joining others to solve a problem, when there is no promise of monetary reward, can set off light bulbs. Some of them brighten the lives of individuals or populations in need; others shed light on our own creative pursuits, including writing. The dark pressure of competition lifts to release thought. New programs, new artworks emerge.

We leave behind the stingy ego to cycle between giving and receiving.

We become “otherish,” a term Adam Grant introduces in his book Give & Take, if not altruistic. The more people give, the more they produce, he contends. When well developed and given with joy, their gifts generate positive change.

Givers Who Got—Ideas

Take Robert Egger, who once ran a nightclub. One night in 1989, he reluctantly boarded a van to help feed homeless people on the streets of the nation’s capital. He saw inefficiencies, dreamed up improvements, and started a food-recovery operation that morphed into DC Central Kitchen, a number of other programs, and a career as a writer and speaker. Twenty-five years later, he started LA Kitchen.

In The Gift, now a classic, Lewis Hyde tells the story of Walt Whitman, who found inspiration by nursing soldiers in a Civil War hospital. By transcribing into letters and transforming into poetry the experiences of wounded and dying servicemen, he used his genius for healing. He thrived, creatively and psychologically, while collaborating with others to alleviate suffering. Though he later returned to nature to find his muse, he spent his happiest moments in the wards, engaging the edginess of life—gratis.

Giving—to nature too—is intrinsic to our creative health, corporately and individually. The circular miracle of gifts given and ideas received happens everyday. Mick Ebeling, winner of the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, shares his story in Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done. Read Bill Shore’s The Cathedral Within for more examples of giving through meaningful work.

Advice for Volunteers

  • Just as you might start exploring art by coloring with your children or nature by walking to work through a park, begin volunteering by performing simple acts of kindness. Do something for someone you know, then, for someone you don’t know, and, finally, for someone out of your comfort range.
  • Decide what you can give. To whom do you want to give—people, animals, or plants? How much time do you have? Adam Grant recommends two hours, “chunked,” one day each week. Where do you want to volunteer? Locally or farther away?
  • Make certain you choose a place that has a formal volunteer program and requires the skills you want to offer. Be sure it schedules opportunities for learning and socializing and respects volunteers’ time and input. Ask around, as you would about a prospective employer.
  • To start, pick an institution whose mandate has nothing to do with your day job. Experiment. Learn new skills. Later, you can do pro bono work for an organization in your field. Caution: Will your volunteering negatively affect the job or freelance market in your profession? If so, will you be giving? Also, you may want to avoid pro bono positions if you’re in your prime working years. You may find people question why you’re available or undervalue your contributions. Although interning may lead to employment when you’re young, volunteering rarely results in paid work when you’re older, according to sources no less prominent than Richard Bolles in What Color is Your Parachute?
  • Be wary of those on the take: Keep your boundaries. Break down your barriers. Listen. Hold your opinions lightly. Practice empathy.
  • Stay only if you enjoy it. Gage when you’ve given all you can. You won’t be able to give, and others won’t receive, if you work out of duty. You want to feel energized, not sapped. Ideas need to escape.
  • Try volunteering virtually—across the world!
  • In keeping with my last post on arts in development, let me suggest Ten Thousand Villages. Stores across the United States depend on volunteers. You’ll learn a lot about fair trade.

Here’s a quote to ponder:

The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up. . . . Bestowal creates that empty place into which new energy may flow. The alternative is petrifaction, writer’s block, ‘the flow of life backed up.’

(Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World [New York: Vintage Books, 2007], 189)

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What do you feel driven to give? Who will benefit? Does volunteering free ideas? Tell us quickly, before the sheer rush of creativity drives us from the subject of writer’s block forever . . .

And I run out of time to wish you a happy Volunteer Appreciation Month!

Career Marketer, Crafts Spur Development

In corporate circles, she was always on the fringes of the artisan sector. Maybe she heard her true calling when she was in China to help masons salvage antique stone from the gravel industry. Or maybe it came to her in Argentina, where she worked with craftsmen who carved furniture for the high-end market in New York. Whenever it hit her, Monika Steinberger decided she wanted to join the nonprofit world and dedicate her business savvy to artisans. She wanted to help them preserve their cultural heritage and make good incomes through the fairest possible trade.

In the mid 2000s, Steinberger got lucky. Aid to Artisans (ATA), now part of Creative Learning, needed someone multilingual who could fly to Afghanistan, Egypt, and Haiti, where it had upcoming projects. It was in New England; she was in nearby New York. She knew people the world over who worked with their hands and creative professionals in the United States and Europe, who specialized in marketing, branding, advertising, and photography. A native of Austria, she spoke German, English, French, and Spanish. Most important, she was willing to travel in dicey times.

Into the Field

For eight years now, Steinberger has collaborated with craftspeople in the remotest and poorest regions of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, including the Middle East. She enjoys her daily interactions—often via cellphone—the most. She can hear about, if not see, the impact of ATA projects on people’s lives and livelihoods. She can measure changes in family health, education, and overall well-being by collecting stories, sometimes statistics. “It’s been an extraordinary experience. I would almost do it for nothing,” she volunteered.

Haiti’s desperate poverty and environmental devastation really got under Steinberger’s skin. ATA fulfilled the livelihoods component of a three-year project supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and the UK Big Lottery Fund. She and her Haitian colleagues held a workshop in Cap Haitien for women and men to help them design and produce bamboo bangles (see picture, above) for the local tourist market. The artisans spent one dollar on raw bamboo for each bangle they fashioned and sold the finished bracelets for five dollars each to passengers on Royal Caribbean Cruise ships docked at Labadie. The bangles were later a hit at winter and summer wholesale shows at the Javits Center in New York. Global Girlfriend, an online retailer of women-made gifts, ordered 500 with 2,500 to follow, for a total of $13,000—a fortune for the Haitian artisans. The project showed the immediate impact craft can have on an economy and environment. For every bamboo stem they harvested, the artisans had to plant two shoots. The grass grows rapidly, stabilizes eroded soil, and lends itself to craft.

Behind the Scenes

As in all ATA ventures, the first step in the Haitian project was to assess the local, expat, tourist, and international markets for demand. Funders, whether public or private, usually approach ATA with a craft medium or region of the developing world in mind. ATA then consults its vast network of craftspeople. “We never start from nothing,” Steinberger said. “We are there to bring information from the market to them.” ATA assists artisans in developing or upgrading their crafts and links them to buyers. Through workshops and in-country management, ATA imparts business acumen to craftspeople, always mindful not only of the markets, but also of the environment and relationships. Artisans, who are usually women, are part of communities. They have to support their families, even more than save the cultural patrimony of their countries. Matters of money and spirit have to jive.

But they do not always readily synch. In Chiapas, Mexico, Mayan women weavers did not trust each other with trade secrets, nor could they band together to buy raw materials at wholesale prices. If they could get a formal business license from the government—a cumbersome process even for ATA— they could expand. The interpersonal and practical realms collided until ATA/Mexico began organizing the weavers as a uniquely Mexican association. Most ATA projects continue as registered businesses or nongovernmental organizations with local staff. Some, like CREATA in Columbia, grow to partner with ATA.

Steinberger calls that success, but the project she’s working on is always closest to her heart. Right now, she’s busy in Yemen, where ATA is part of a five-year U.S. Agency for International Development agricultural project implemented by the Land O’Lakes Foundation. She just returned from evaluating Yemen’s craft market. The country’s cultural heritage—gingerbread architecture, silver jewelry, and painted windows—entranced her. She fixed on an active hand-weaving tradition that merits expansion: men weave skirts on simple ground looms for the local market. If the community agrees, Steinberger would like to engage a small group of women to produce similar cloth for the international market year round.

“Identification of the artisans is a crucial part of our work. We have to be careful not to do harm. We are empowering people by giving them access to income they didn’t have before. That changes a family and community,” Steinberger said. At harvest time, she will help men and women export artisanal honey, coffee, spices, fragrances, and herbal lotions by connecting them to buyers. She knows the products will sell.

Arts in Development, Then and Now

ATA’s approach to arts in development was once unique. Well-meaning donors still sometimes send consultants to countries without exploring the markets or sounding out local craftspeople. They might train women to produce pillowcases on sewing machines they donate to a community center with sporadic electricity. In two weeks, the foreign experts are gone. Pictures of smiling faces enliven thick reports. But there’s no follow-up. The women have wasted time they could have used making money and are left with a skill and machines they cannot use. No locals or foreigners need pillowcases. Traditional crafts lie fallow. Three months later, there’s no trace of the intervention. Nothing is sustainable—except the women’s newfound cynicism.

Such projects have not helped arts in development, which, as a field, endures skepticism from practitioners who favor huge agricultural or infrastructure interventions with statistically measurable results. “Scaling up” is the buzzword of the moment, according to Steinberger. The international development community wants to fund projects that have the greatest impact on the largest number of people, even if they take decades to show results. Funders prefer to underwrite livelihood projects that help hundreds of women in the garment industry produce thousands of inexpensive shirts for Western consumers. Although craft is often a country’s second biggest employer after agriculture and has a more immediate, sustainable effect on a population, it’s hard to scale up without sacrificing quality, incomes, health, environment, and the intangible cultural heritage it embodies.

Sometimes Steinberger sees intercultural conflict while saving cultures. Artisans everywhere tend to be poor and very jealous of their turf. Aymara in Northern Chile told her they lost much of their international market in native alpaca products when Americans started raising the animals in the States. The Americans, in turn, had to lower their prices to compete with cheaper imports. “You have to measure your market impact and tailor your intervention accordingly,” she cautioned.

State of the Artisans

Partly as a result of the worldwide recession and partly because of lessons learned by practitioners of international development, ATA now competes for places in massive undertakings in tourism, environment, agriculture, health, and women’s empowerment. It cannot find funding for crafts-only projects as it did for over thirty years. Nevertheless, in the past two years, Steinberger has seen renewed emphasis on cultural preservation among funders. In March, ATA will start collaborating with the Smithsonian, its once-frequent partner, to protect pottery and nomadic crafts in Tibet. Steinberger is excited about using cultural mapping during the assessment.

When asked if she thought craft sales fed Americans’ insatiable consumerism, Steinberger pointed out that buyers everywhere help safeguard cultural traditions. Many big-box companies are now following the ATA approach, at least in part. Although large corporations have recognized the demand for crafts in Europe and the States, they want artisans to create them at high volume and low cost. The crafts and craftspeople do not prosper. Consumers need to pay more to preserve quality and support the artisans. Still, Steinberger commends the multinationals, some of them ATA partners, for establishing fair-trade sidelines.

“The key is to educate the consumer,” observed Steinberger. “Telling the story is really our reason for being. It’s an economic reality that something that’s handmade will be more expensive than something that’s mass produced. If you want to sell it, you have to explain that it’s an original work of craft that has been touched by the hands of a real live artisan in a particular place. It’s a losing proposition to take out the story. You take out the soul, meaning, and value. So it’s our daily work to make sure that the cultural content is known because in the end, that’s what makes craft sustainable. That’s what attracted me and still attracts me to the mission of ATA—making culture a building block of the economy.”

Like the Chinese builders who inspired her years ago, ATA’s Monika Steinberger helps protect old traditions. Like the Argentine craftsmen she once advised, she helps create new custom.

Pediatrician, Parks Improve Child Health

Whenever he can, Dr. Robert Zarr takes a lunchtime stroll to a nearby park to commune with his favorite tree, watch children play with sticks and acorns—to practice what he preaches. Zarr is a pediatrician at Unity Healthcare, a clinic in northwest Washington, DC, and one of the brains behind the DC Park Prescription Program (DC Park Rx). Inspired by the writings of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, he and a growing number of colleagues prescribe nature to inner-city children who live with obesity, asthma, anxiety, and depression. From personal and professional experience, Zarr knows that just twenty minutes spent in green space can improve health. He’s also convinced that children treated with parks will become adults who steward the environment.

Success Stories

On a hot, humid day typical of summer in the U.S. capital, I joined Zarr on a bench in Meridian Hill Park to talk about his cutting-edge work in environmental health, or environmental healing. As he noshed on a healthy dish of okra, he told the story of a little girl now five or six years old. Her parents brought her to him because they were concerned about her inability to sit still at home and her frequent temper tantrums. Unlike many doctors, he didn’t prescribe a pill or lab test, and he didn’t refer them to a psychiatrist. Instead, he asked how she spent her weekends. They confessed she remained indoors the whole time. He explained that she might feel better after unstructured play in the woods. Would they be willing to take her to Rock Creek Park? Let her roam and listen to birds for two hours on Saturday and two hours on Sunday? They agreed. During the follow-up visit, he deliberately didn’t ask them what happened. Toward the end of the appointment, they volunteered that the park prescription had worked. She was getting into far less trouble, could focus, and sleep much better. She was a different person.

Zarr is full of moving anecdotes. He worked with one young woman who was concerned about her weight. Together, they changed her long route to school on public transportation. She agreed to walk the last leg of the trip. Then, they added time in a park to her schedule. Her weight plummeted, and her confidence rose so much that she pursued soccer camp in the summer. She told her story on National Public Radio.

Why Park Prescriptions?

A park prescription can lead to frequent, evermore complicated encounters with nature. A child who picks up a stick with great trepidation the first time in the forest builds a tree house several months later. Over time, Zarr contends, a generation now deprived of the outdoors will no longer suffer from Louv’s nature-deficit disorder.

Right now, one in three American children are overweight or obese. Seven million have asthma, and close to six million have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Approximately, 3,600 young people are diagnosed each year with type-2 diabetes. Over recent decades, children have lost 25 percent of playtime and 50 percent of unstructured outdoor activity. “We’re now very much a sedentary culture. Children aren’t moving. There’s been a culture shift from moving to sitting,” Zarr said.

DC Park Rx

That’s why he got moving. DC Park Rx is a community initiative of health providers and foundations, the National Park Service, DC Department of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Social Services, National Environmental Education Foundation, American Academy of Pediatrics, and George Washington University, where Zarr teaches public health. Across the United States, there are other programs, all part of the National Park Service’s Healthy Parks, Healthy People. It drew inspiration from a similar program in Australia, where healthcare providers actually donate a percentage of their earnings to preserve and maintain green space. The DC Park Rx database went up in July 2013; it now lists 380 District parks. Zarr and his colleagues have written over 500 prescriptions on bilingual English and Spanish prescription pads.

Last year, he finished a study of approximately 400 children for whom he prescribed one or more parks for three months. On average, the patients spent twenty-two more minutes a day and six more days a year outdoors and in physical activity than other children. Next year, Zarr hopes to show that nature prescriptions lead to statistically significant decreases in overall weight, body mass index, blood pressure, and diabetic measurements like hemoglobin levels. He’d also like to document fewer visits to emergency rooms and less use of medicines by asthma and mental health patients.

For Nature and People

But does nature benefit from Park Rx and comparable programs? The question can touch a nerve in conservationists, Zarr admitted. After all, organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Green Peace struggle to lessen the human impact on the environment to protect other species and their habitats.

“This would be a fascinating time to take health advocates and environmental activists and put them in the same room to come up with a consensus about how we can create a healthier population and planet,” Zarr said. “I’m of the opinion we can do both.”

He has had good support from local and national park services. “Park Rx doesn’t exist only to decrease the burden of chronic disease,” he said. “It’s intricately linked to conservation efforts. If we don’t get kids to appreciate a tree, we’re in big trouble.” Today, most environmentalists worldwide are over fifty and white; they don’t reflect the future. Zarr, not quite fifty and fluent in Spanish, would like to be part of a paradigm change. He feels a sense of urgency.

Fortunately, he doesn’t encounter much skepticism or lack of compliance in the families he serves. Individuals of all socio-economic backgrounds warm to Park Rx. After all, given the opportunity to eat well and spend time in nature, most people jump at the chance. Any barriers that exist are systemic, Zarr believes. Children spend too much time inside schools preparing for standardized tests and too little in recess and physical activity. Parents work two to three jobs. Zarr knows mothers who spend forty dollars on train fare to get their children to the clinic. They find cabs cheaper. Because of climate change, it’s often too hot or too cold outside. Yet architects still design buildings without windows or green roofs, without indoor or outdoor landscaping.

“People are in desperate situations. We need to ask ourselves as a population if our routines are healthy for the planet and us,” Zarr advised. “What constitutes happiness and well-being is the nature of what we’re talking about—pardon the pun.”

How Park Rx Works

The Trust for Public Land scored over fifty of the nation’s urban areas on access to parks. The Washington, DC, metro area came in sixth. A number of District parks are adjacent to recreation centers with pools, stationary bicycles, and yearlong programs. So users can pursue regular or “green” exercise. Enter a zip code into the Park Rx database and out pops at least one park or green space within a five-mile radius. Usually, people can walk to its gates. If not, they can take the recommended bus or Metro line. Although database volunteers don’t research crime stats, they do subjectively rate parks on safety and cleanliness at different times of the day. They also note who visits the parks. Park Rx encourages people to go as families and use parks in different ways—to develop a sense of ownership.

For some people, particularly those coming out of violence here or, say, Central America, connecting with park rangers and families like theirs can alleviate fears. Park officials must be committed to greeting everyone, including those who might have had traumatic experiences in forested areas. “It’s a doctor’s job to be culturally aware of their patients—where they come from, their backgrounds, experiences, and routines—to make educated decisions about the right time and place to prescribe nature,” Zarr said. “The onus is on the doctor to establish a relationship with the person they’re counseling. For the health-provider community, Park Rx is a tool.” A good one the public can access.

Other Tools, Future Plans

At Unity, there are two other tools for doctors and patients, including the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program and Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition (appropriately abbreviated We Can!), a National Institutes of Health program. Children and adults spend the first half of classes indoors to get their vitals measured and learn about healthy eating. Then, they go to Meridian Hill Park for aerobics.

When asked what he had in the works, Zarr said he would soon find out if he had funding from the DC Department of Health to finish and revamp the database. He wants to make it more user friendly for providers and individuals, so they can search for activities like jogging, swimming, horseback riding, and qualities like shade and cleanliness. He’d like to have the time patients spend in parks come back via their smartphones to their electronic medical records. He’d also like to design an app and find out what patients learn about nature.

But even the near future is a dream—or so the starlings were shouting from the trees. The man who had walked laps before us for an hour had gone inside. “It’s very, very hot, and I’m almost getting dizzy,” Zarr suddenly said. Whether his infectious enthusiasm or the weather had overheated me, I had to agree. The day’s park prescription had run its course. I looked forward to another.