Colleen Cranney says she’s spent so many years as an educator that her teacher skills kick in whenever she’s volunteering at Natural Lands. “At workdays, I like to lead by example so new volunteers feel comfortable and know exactly what they should be doing. But the teacher in me is counting heads, checking that they’re staying hydrated, and making sure they feel welcome and happy.”
Colleen is a Force of Nature® Peer Leader, trained to guide fellow volunteers in land stewardship activities. With so many new visitors flocking to the preserves since March 2020 in search of safe, outdoor recreation, the properties have experienced a lot of wear and tear. There has been a great need for help, but not enough staff hours on weekends—when most volunteers are able to engage—to lead workdays.
Colleen first got to know Natural Lands by hiking at Binky Lee and Bryn Coed Preserves near her home in northern Chester County. As a part-time, seasonal environmental educator with Paradise Farm Camps, on which Natural Lands holds a conservation easement, she realized she had some extra time on her hands. The preserves had given her so much joy, and she wanted to give back.
“I have learned so much since I began volunteering,” Colleen shares. “I am so impressed with the organization. I’ve met great people—both staff and volunteers—and it’s uplifting to watch a group of people come together and accomplish something.”
Particularly during the pandemic, Colleen’s role as a volunteer Peer Leader has helped her to feel connected with others. “It’s a time when many people feel cut off and isolated. But I’ve never come home from a workday feeling anything other than happy and reenergized.”
The pilot program was so successful that the role expanded to 20 trained Peer Leaders in 2021, including Colleen who leads at Binky Lee and Bryn Coed Preserves. Working closely with preserve managers, they organize everything from tree plantings to trail clean ups to seed scattering events. They welcome volunteers as they arrive, give them background on Natural Lands, and explain the task at hand. During the event, they supervise activities to ensure a safe, positive experience for all involved. And they make sure to offer thanks on behalf of the organization. “Everyone should leave feeling really good about what they’ve done and given to Natural Lands,” says Colleen.
“I’m deeply grateful for the enthusiastic dedication of Colleen and all our wonderful Peer Leaders,” says Debbie Beer, director of volunteer engagement. “Thanks to their leadership, Natural Lands engaged a record number of volunteers last year who served more than 11,400 hours. There is a volunteer service opportunity scheduled just about every weekend at one or more preserves, almost all year round.”
Colleen’s words of advice for someone thinking about volunteering with Natural Lands? “Just give it a try. No matter what your skill level, as long as you want to help and love nature, we can use you.” And she’ll make sure you stay hydrated and happy while you’re helping out.
To meet Colleen or other dedicated Peer Leaders, and get hands dirty giving back, register for a volunteer event on our website, www.natlands.org/events.