Like many parents, I’m often on the lookout for opportunities to volunteer with my kids. I try to find things that are going to be somewhat fun, so that even if they are not hugely engaged with the cause itself they’ll have a positive experience.
Which is why I found myself suiting up rather ambivalently last weekend on a drizzly 45-degree morning to go wade in the river below our house. I’d signed Austin and I up for the Haw River Assembly’s stream monitoring project. At 14, he’s become adept with a kayak and a canoe and likes to go out on the river and fish. I figured the health of the river would be a cause with which he might feel a personal connection. This project is also part of my devious ongoing scheme to get him away from his screens and out into the world.
So last September Cynthia from the Haw River Assembly gamely trained us to go out four times a year at designated times and collect data on our little stretch of the river. We’d join dozens of “river watcher” teams who are equipped to monitor water quality through aquatic insect counts, pH tests, temperature, and other observations.
It was a lovely fall day when we went out to be trained. As I expected Austin didn’t have any problem at all wading into the water to collect samples and the tasks were hands-on and engaging. (I can be a little bit squeamish about the river sometimes myself – Hillbilly Handfishin’ anyone?)
Three months after our training it was time to do data collection on our own. On the designated morning last weekend I woke up to a cold, December-y rain and my heart sank a little. Not only was it chilly and wet, but I hadn’t gotten it together to get Austin any wading boots. So our “fun” volunteering opportunity was not looking quite so attractive as it had on that pretty day last fall. I knew that I would be hearing about it from Austin, especially when I had to wake him up early because the weather was forecasted to get even worse later in the day. Waking this teenager up “early” (9:30am) on a Saturday is pretty much asking for a negativity bomb.
There was the expected bellyaching when I knocked on his door in the morning and I got ready to deliver my stern lecture about how we had made a commitment and we had to see it through.
I never got to deliver it. True, there was more grumbling as he looked for his sandals that we’d stashed away for the winter. But when we got down to the river, he was all business. He remembered the processes from our training better than I did. He gamely waded out into the 55-degree water in those sandals while I sat high and dry on the banks recording his findings. And he sat patiently on a rock out in the river, sifting through samples and calling out “Mayfly” or “Pouch Snail” as he identified macro invertebrates from our laminated chart. We worked smoothly as a team, got it done, and even had a few laughs. Whew!
While I had hoped for a really fun first time river watcher experience to give Austin a warm and fuzzy feeling about volunteering for this important cause, our experience was probably far more valuable and realistic. Because no matter how much you love your work or believe in your cause, it is going to be necessary sometimes to wade in the cold muck to achieve your goals.