Unique Experience in Volunteering

Last week started here in The Netherlands with about 6 inches of snow on the ground that quickly melted as the more common winter rain set in for the following days.  I dreaded as Friday approached, I had a Dutch function to attend and it always gives me a bit of inner conflict.

I have lived here in The Netherlands for ten years with frequent trips back to the US.  I speak Dutch well enough to get around and to make small talk but it is not fluent by any stretch of my imagination.  Now add an entire group of Dutch speaking people in a social gathering and I am really out of my element uncomfortable.  I usually find a seat and plant myself and remain immobile for the event.  Small talk to my left and right and if I am feeling very comfortable I might try to be understood across the table.

I could have opted out of this event, I knew I would be he only foreigner in attendance, but that is not who I am or my personality.   Better to face my fear and master it with style and hopefully some sort of grace.

This past year I volunteered for two wonderful organizations.  The first was in mid April when I flew from Minnesota to Spokane, Washington for a one day trail work project with the Washington Trails Association.  The trip was actually to visit my 98-year-old grandmother in Idaho but I planned this volunteer day into my schedule.

Seems a bit crazy to most people to spend part of a vacation or any free time volunteering but for me I have found that I learn so much more about myself and the capabilities of others when volunteering.  Working with people who really enjoy a task is inspirational.

Building trails is hard work!  WTA builds and maintains thousands of miles of hiking trails in Washington State.  Some of the locations are the most challenging hiking environments and really rugged conditions.  After looking through the available work projects I found one I thought would be nice for my winter out of shape unconditioned body.  A short hike in and building new trail.  After a winter of gloomy Dutch sky, I was looking forward to working outside in some sunshine.

You can read my trip report on their website and maybe be inspired to join a project. Fishtrap Lake Trip Report.

In June I was back in The Netherlands and looking for an opportunity to keep me busy besides my kayaking.  Gardening is another passion of mine besides kayaking.

My second volunteer opportunity was with the Historical Garden in Aalsmeer (aka Historische Tuin Museum). The idea of volunteering at the gardens had always appealed to me but I had never taken the final step.

I reviewed the Dutch website about the gardens and found that I needed to contact the gardens directly to become a volunteer (in Dutch the word is vrijwilliger).

I hopped on the bus and rode the 40 minutes to Aalsmeer to find out how I could volunteer.

I am always nervous with one of these sort of adventures, having to pull out and use my rusty Dutch vocabulary and sentence structure after spending time in the USA. It is always very hard for me and gives me butterflies in my stomach.  I mentally practiced what I would say and walked in the door to a new adventure that day.  When the interview was concluded, I was still unsure if they would take a chance on me as a foreigner with my broken Dutch.  I didn’t have to wonder about it for long, later that afternoon I received a phone call that I could start my volunteer work the following week.

I spent the summer and into the fall a few hours per week at the gardens doing all sorts of tasks.  I deadheaded rose bushes, pruned rose bushes, weeded the rose garden, planted mums, and learned about grafting roses and lilacs. I also learned an entire new vocabulary in Dutch. I met some incredible people!  Most of these volunteers have spent their entire lives in the Dutch flower industry or have a close connection to the history of Aalsmeer. It was enjoyable to hear each story and learn while I volunteered. Some of the people at the gardens had also useful kayak information about the lake.

I got to witness first hand the wonderful changes from week to week in the gardens.  It always renews my soul to put my hands in the dirt, plant a seed or plant and watch it produce a beautiful flower.

It was a wonderful experience to work next to people who really know flowers.  One man I worked with spent his entire career working with roses.  I felt like such a newbie working with him.  He would quickly snip, snip, snip the roses to every one snip of mine.  I was always questioning myself, is it the one to cut and where best to cut, slowing down my progress on my side of the row of rose bushes.


I survived Friday!

The Christmas fest had over 80 people in attendance. The event was to thank all the volunteers for the year of work they gave the gardens.  I felt like I should have been thanking the gardens for my volunteer experience. An opportunity that I would have never had experienced if they hadn’t taken me on as a volunteer.

I still planted myself in my chair.  I had small talk to the left and to the right of me.  I met some new people and saw several of the wonderful people I worked with all summer.

On the bus ride home I realized what unique experiences I have had this last year while volunteering. I feel very lucky to have the life and the opportunities that I have on both sides of the ocean.  I hope to have many more years of these sort of adventures and pleasures.

If you are interested in volunteering I can personally recommend these following organizations.


Historische Tuin Aalsmeer