Memories and Gratitude: An Ode to Volunteers


Bria Fleming harvests at Kankakee Sands.
Bria Fleming harvests at Kankakee Sands.

By Bria Fleming

Each year in the height of summer here at Kankakee Sands, the plants are growing in earnest,  the seeds are ripening, our workload is increasing exponentially and I am filled with a renewed appreciation for the time and dedication of our volunteers. They give selflessly of themselves and their time, many of them year after year, and are rewarded only with our thanks and the occasional pizza party.  Yet they keep coming, and Kankakee Sands flourishes all the more because of them.

As I think about our volunteers, my thoughts turn inevitably to my own experiences, and I realize that I don’t recall these in terms of what I gave, but what I got.  For the entirety of my pre-grownup life, volunteering was what you did for maybe an hour or two on the occasional Saturday because it looked good on a college application. An obligation and usually a chore – something you like the idea of but don’t particularly enjoy. But later, being on the verge of graduating from college and still unable (or unwilling) to choose a career, I did what any idealistic twenty-something might do: I applied for a national service program called Americorps.  What started as a way to buy myself some time became the answer to question I didn’t even know I had.

Over the next ten months, it seemed that the entire world opened up to me. My team and I traveled all over the Midwest. We built houses in Gary, blazed trails in Milwaukee, and controlled invasive plants in Sioux City. We met people who did this stuff for a living. They traveled everywhere, they did everything, they got their hands dirty and they LOVED their lives. I realized that if I could work for next to nothing, I could do anything, anywhere. My terror at getting stuck in a 9-5 job for my whole life melted away, and I stopped worrying and started doing. For me, what volunteering meant was freedom. Two years ago, I found myself back in Indiana and attended a Thursday volunteer work day at Kankakee Sands. There began my career with The Nature Conservancy.

At Kankakee Sands, we work with a lot of people with a lot of different backgrounds. Our seasonal crew is made up of people like those described above – working for next to nothing (monetarily speaking) in exchange for experience, personal fulfillment, and a “thank you”.  Shake their hands the next time you see them. Our regular volunteers are people with big hearts and a strong interest in the environment.  They’ve seen something special in the project here, and are willing to drive long distances to lend their time. We all work together in sun or rain, heat or cold. We work not only for the plants, birds, reptiles, mammals, and soil of Kankakee Sands, but also for ourselves. Through stewardship of our land, we are stewards of our own happiness and fulfillment, our sense of place and purpose.

What follows is a small taste of what we’ve all accomplished together so far this year, but also a sneak-peak of what volunteering is like at Kankakee Sands.

Violets: The regal fritillary is a state-endangered species of butterfly, and one of the few places in Indiana it still calls home is Kankakee Sands. Its larvae are known to feed exclusively on violets, so at our native plants nursery we pay special attention to growing violets and harvesting their seeds. This spring, volunteers built two raised beds in which we are currently growing more of these lovely little flowers.

Seed collection: Throughout the summer and autumn, we are busy harvesting the seeds from over 200 species of plants. Our collection goal this year is about 1350 pounds of pure seed, which means collecting thousands of pounds of raw material. Each Thursday morning, volunteers join us on the prairie and help us get a little closer to that goal.

Controlling invasive plants: It’s a jungle out there. Prairies and savannas always need help defending themselves from encroaching exotic species, and this provides yet another way for volunteers to help. In the colder months, we work to cut down invasive woody shrubs and trees. In the warmer months, we spray or hand-pull invasive herbaceous weeds.

Kankakee Sands hosts volunteer work days on the second Saturday of the month year-round, and each Thursday April through November. The work changes depending on the season, and is always greatly appreciated! For more information or to RSVP for a work day, email, or call the office at (219)285-2184. If you’re looking for a more in-depth opportunity, please see the volunteer job postings on our website.

Come out and join us some time.

Bria is the nursery & seed collection assistant at Kankakee Sands. Since graduating college in 2009, she has lived, volunteered and worked in over a dozen different places, from Minnesota to Antarctica.

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  

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