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Lost in the Crowd: Learning to do Effective Volunteering within a Large Group (7/25/2018)

This past weekend, 14 of us DukeEngage Seattleites and our two site coordinators participated in a community workday at the Beacon Food Forest, an ongoing project that is designed to plant and grow a diverse garden in order to redevelop public land into an ecosystem. The forest has an edible arboretum, a berry patch, a nut grove, a community garden, and more. The forest is essentially for the people, by the people.

Upon first arriving at the farm for the workday, we gathered in a room with all the volunteers to be given a quick breakdown of the different tasks offered: irrigation, composting, weeding, watering, and more. The first thing I noticed was the large number of volunteers there for the workday; I was expecting just a few but there were maybe 50 of us. As an environmental engineering student, I gravitated toward the irrigation task, intrigued to learn more about the irrigation system they were building at the farm. However, with around 12 volunteers interested in the task, which had the desired number at 6, I began to feel pretty useless. We started off by forming an assembly line to do a simple task, then realized it would go much faster if we all worked independently. After realizing that my presence could be put to better use since there were so many volunteers at the irrigation station, I transitioned to the composting task, where I used a machete to chop down larger items and put them in a compost bin. However, all the sharp machetes at the compost station were taken and I spent a good chunk of time sharpening a blunt machete to do unfortunately only around 30 minutes of chopping.

After our roughly two hours of work, all the volunteers gathered for a ceremony that was celebrating opening a new phase of the food forest; this was a culmination of months of hard work that the regular volunteers were celebrating (also likely why there were so many volunteers at the workday), and it sort of felt as though I was intruding. I had spent around a half hour doing actual effective work towards the farm, and there I was attending a ceremony praising all the hard work that we volunteers had done.

Not only was this was a shorter workday than usual, but the ceremony included speeches from many invested volunteers who had dedicated so much time and effort towards the project. The sense of community there was incredibly prevalent and although I felt like I didn’t really earn the celebration and praise, I felt like it was a community I would want to be a part of. They were supportive of one another, putting in hard work towards a common goal, very excited about the work they were doing. They were enthusiastic to have us at the farm despite it being our first time there, and welcomed us with a generous potluck-style feast in honor of the celebration. They didn’t care that it was our first time at the farm; they just cared that we came at all. The speeches were reflective and inspirational and looked toward working on the next two phases of the farm. It was an energizing event, and witnessing the depth of community they have built there made me want to return for future workdays. Unfortunately, as we just have three weekends left in Seattle, this is likely not possible for me. But I think it is worth spreading word of how great the Beacon Food Forest (and their community) is, and encouraging everyone who is able to attend at least one volunteer workday! Although I wasn’t able to do quite as much effective work as I would’ve liked, our presence there was noticed, welcomed, and appreciated. I’m looking forward to our future community workdays and will learn from this experience to make the most of my time spent at the future worksites.