by Alivia Acosta, ATC Volunteer Development Coordinator
The Volunteer Community and Human Connections
“Social capital” is a term used to describe the networks of relationships among people. Research has found that the more social capital within and amongst our communities, the higher our quality of life. Recent years have also forced us to acknowledge that face-to-face interactions are more valuable than connections made through a computer or phone. These findings and more are briefly described in this NPR podcast episode with author Robert Putnam.
Appalachian Trail (A.T.) enthusiasts, visitors, and volunteers commonly connect across various boundaries and differences. As a visitor, you may be enjoying a respite at the top of your climb surrounded by fellow travelers. As an enthusiast, you may be chatting with your friends and family about all the benefits that the Trail provides. As a volunteer, you may be committed to enjoying the fun and camaraderie of working alongside fellow dedicated volunteers. Thanks to the A.T., new friendships are regularly formed.
Time and time again, volunteers from all walks of life share statements like, “I continue to volunteer because I enjoy the people I work with,” or, “You should only be volunteering as long as you are having fun.”
The Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club (NBATC) in Virginia for example, hosts a variety of volunteer work crews including their Wednesday maintenance crew. Each week, volunteers organize themselves to perform essential trail maintenance on the club’s section of the A.T.
“Keeping us busy is important to keep us engaged,” says Steve Lichiello, a regular member of the NBATC’s Wednesday work crew. “However, after a hard day ‘on the job’ we want, and need, to have time to wind down and be social. That is why after every Wednesday work trip, we gather at a local convening spot for a few treats, such as ice cream or baked goods, and sit around enjoying stories of the day or catching up on families or vacations that we all love to share.”
“We also gather at the homes of members who may need assistance with home maintenance,” Lichiello continues. “We turn these opportunities into a type of party that almost always includes a potluck meal. We are more than volunteers; we have become a kind of extended family of folks looking for a rewarding way to give back, doing something we enjoy and can all benefit from socially.”
Beyond the weekly post-work gatherings of the Wednesday crew and any additional social events, the club always has a Christmas luncheon and a summer social.
The volunteer community on the A.T. goes beyond the Trail’s edge. The pride and connections shared amongst A.T. volunteers are known for fostering life-long friendships and memories, and often serving as a support system that never fails to warm the hearts of even the weariest of travelers.
The following is a story about friendships within the A.T. volunteer community of the Blue Eagle Mountain Climbing Club in Pennsylvania shared by Cindy Ross, a long-time member of the group, following an accident that led to her husband using a wheelchair:
“My husband had been the Shelters Chairman for the Blue Mountain Eagle Hiking Club for about eight years. He helped build two log shelters and three mouldering privies on the Appalachian Trail. That same hiking club I have been a member of since I was 15 years old and had a section of trail to maintain for many years. Some of its oldest members, and many whom have passed, gave me my love of hiking and taught me how to backpack. We have a long history.
“When the club members found out about Todd’s accident, they wanted to help in some way. Well, it turned into a very big way, creating packed stone trails around our property so Todd could get around and access our campfire area in his wheelchair. They gave themselves two days to do the job, but they had such a big turnout, they finished by noon of day one. The club members moved 14-15 tons of stone (and many members are older but still beastly). It was all very impressive. They warmed our hearts to see how they gave up their time and energy to make our lives better. We love you, Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club. We will feel your love and efforts for years to come. Know that you have helped tremendously in helping Todd heal by being outdoors in nature.”
Caring for the Trail requires a community of volunteers. Thankfully, the A.T. volunteer community cares for more than the Trail — it is a community that also cares for its members. Find your place in the A.T. volunteer community by finding a volunteer opportunity near you at appalachiantrail.org/waystovolunteer.