Something to Believe In

When my supervisor at the Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City suggested that I develop a youth volunteer program, I was scared to death. I knew what I had done to my parents as a teenager. I had stored dead animals in their freezer to further my own biological and taxidermy interests, marking my packages "hamburger" to avoid alarming my mom. Snakes and other assorted critters were often hidden under my bed for occasional use to scare my sisters. No wonder the idea of supervising a group of teenagers scared me.

The Conservation Department did not have any other youth volunteer program in the state to use as a model, so the nature center decided to model it after the adult program. The new program was advertised in our "Habitat Happenings" newsletter. We agreed to pick five volunteers.

When orientation night came there were nearly 30 young people present. The entire staff was pleased and surprised at the turnout. These kids could be anywhere doing anything but, instead, they wanted to volunteer their time for something they believed in.

When asked why they were interested in volunteering at the Runge Conservation Nature Center, their replies included, "I want to give something back to Jefferson City or my community," "I want to teach people about conservation," and "I want to work for the Missouri Department of Conservation when I grow up."

We soon discovered that all of these youngsters were qualified. Here was a group of kids between the ages of 14 and 17 years old who wanted to do something besides watch television on their summer break, and the nature center staff had the chance to change their lives with respect to conservation and the natural world around them. Instead of five volunteers we picked ten. The next step was training. After a behind-the-scenes tour of the nature center, these kids had to go through seven weeks of training, including two-hour classes every Tuesday evening. During their training the kids had to:

  • Assist with a Kid's Club meeting
  • Hike all trails and learn to lead an effective trail hike
  • Discover reptiles and amphibians
  • Learn presentation skills with the adult class
  • Conduct tree identification and pre-school programs
  • Present spider and mammal programs

All ten successfully completed their training and were graduated with the adult class in a traditional "Pomp and Circumstance" ceremony. On graduation evening the nature center staff felt like the proud parents of ten graduating teenagers.

As the staff considered how