By Lindsey Kellogg (Richmond National Battlefield Park)
Planning a volunteer day is tough business. You want your volunteers to have the elusive experience of both having fun and doing hard work. For my first-ever volunteer day, I wanted it to be a smash hit. Yet I was posed with some obstacles: the oppressive Virginia heat, the humidity, the ticks and mosquitoes always scheming to get another bite, and my own inexperience as a volunteer coordinator.
Yet the site for my work day was special, almost inspirational. It was once owned by members of the free black Gravel Hill community, made up of descendants freed by the 1771 will of a Quaker slave owner. During the Civil War, fighting from the 1862 Seven Days Battle swept right through the property and temporarily displaced its owners.
The site has now stood vacant for decades, home only to piles of old tires and debris. Yet recently, a new group took over: eight intrepid high school students, armed with shovels, brushes and measuring tape. I got to spend a day with these kids before planning my own volunteer event: they are working with local non-profit Groundwork RVA (see their site and Tumblr) to complete an
archaeological investigation of the site. Though none were particularly involved with archaeology before this summer, they’ve become dedicated to the project of recovering artifacts from Gravel Hill’s past. As I met them they were joking around while doing the hard, sweaty work of digging and combing through layers of dirt.
The image of the kids having fun in their work and being dedicated to the mission struck me. Any experience is better if you have motivation, right? So I started writing a speech for my volunteers to get them really involved in the trash pickup.
“Important aspects of history bring you here today,”… no, not right, don’t use lofty language..
“Trash is gross, am I right?” …lol nah.
“This site has incredible historical and environmental value,”… that sounds better.
When the volunteers got there, of course I couldn’t live up to my pre-written words. I stumbled through the historical importance and environmental bit is a pretty coherent way, I thought. And then we went to work.
I’d recruited in a variety of ways. This might have been the most difficult part. I pubbed the event on Facebook, but I’m not sure it was effective. By linking the park into Handsonrva.org, basically the hub for all volunteering in Richmond, I got the most people out there. A cadre of soldiers in training from nearby Fort Lee also joined. (When they arrived, it hit me just how diverse the military is–along racial lines and increasingly along gender ones as well. I want to work more with them to accomplish our Centennial goals.)
Besides the niceness of the day, the most entertaining thing to the volunteers was the age of the trash we found–most of the items dumped there appeared to be from the 70s. One young soldier found not one, but two abandoned bedframes. A father found the remains of several old tube TVs. The younger volunteers (myself included) were amazed at the design all the retro soda and beer bottles we found.
I’d made the event only two hours long in case the day was hot (I also wrongly feared the volunteers would get bored.) Though we didn’t clear all the debris within that time, the volunteers were still entirely gung-ho at the end, and would have been game for more. In the end, the best thing was hearing one young female soldier ask her sergeant “Can we come back tomorrow?” I beamed.