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Ann Baker Easley is the Executive Director of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) headquartered in Denver, CO. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube and learn more at voc.org.
WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
I serve as the executive director of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC). Our vision is to foster within every Coloradan a passion for, and a commitment to, caring for the outdoors. We connect people to Colorado’s outdoors through hands-on stewardship of our public lands and trails, engaging thousands of volunteers each year in boots-on-the-ground volunteer projects. We also work to expand stewardship efforts by helping communities, agencies, and other groups grow their own volunteer programs.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY DOES THE WORLD NEED YOU?
Colorado is famous for its outdoor landscapes: they support a booming sector of our economy and are why so many of us choose to live, work, and visit here. That’s why VOC’s mission is to motivate and enable people to become active stewards of these natural resources. We believe it is our responsibility, as Coloradans, to give back to these places as much as these places give to us.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
Each year, VOC engages thousands of adult and youth volunteers in building and maintaining trails, creating healthy environments for plants and wildlife, planting trees and community gardens, and restoring fire-and flood-damaged places – all across the state. In the past 35 years, VOC has engaged more than 120,000 people in caring for Colorado through over 1,000 volunteer projects – a total donated labor value of nearly $24 million.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO MAKE THIS IMPACT?
I am most inspired by the many children and youth we reach through our Next Gen programs. The greatest impact we can make is by building the next generation of caretakers; through VOC, we are able to serve as examples and role models to show them what it means to responsibly care for the outdoors. I am refreshed and reinvigorated to continue working in this field by the young people who desperately need us as mentors to help guide them in. Just as my parents did for me while we were hiking or camping, VOC’s Next Gen programs make experiences in the outdoors meaningful, fun, and full of opportunities to learn about caring for all of the natural world.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM, FOR THE ORGANIZATION AND THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
As humans, we are inextricably connected to the natural world and yet too many of us take it for granted. My big dream is that everyone practices good stewardship of the outdoors – that every single Coloradan knows how important it is to take personal responsibility in taking care of the natural world around them – whether in their backyard, their local park, or in the backcountry. Not everyone can or will want to spend time volunteering, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all give back in small and important ways.
As more people visit and move to Colorado, more people are spending time outside on trails, parks, and open spaces. VOC is actively working to expand the capacity of other groups – such as nonprofits and government agencies – to care for the outdoors by sharing the knowledge and best practices we’ve developed over the past few decades. We are providing organizational training and technical assistance to other stewardship organizations so that they can increase their own efforts to engage and involve people in their local communities. These important partnerships will help us reach many more people than we can do alone.
WHAT RESOURCES DO YOU NEED TO MAKE THAT DREAM COME TRUE?
Collective action. From small, everyday actions like picking up and disposing of our pets’ waste to large actions like voting for preservation of open spaces and conservation of riverways. All of these actions add up to help ensure our natural world remains viable for generations to come. We see this cumulative impact every day in our work, as individuals work together to amplify their efforts and enact visible, tangible change. We have a saying at VOC that was coined by one of our most dedicated volunteers: if everyone spent one day each year volunteering to help maintain a trail in Colorado, they could hike the remaining 364 days guilt-free. It’s that collective action of all of us doing one small action that adds up to make a huge difference.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
Our biggest challenge has been educating the public about the impact recreation has on the outdoors, and the need for stewardship to balance that impact and preserve the very places we came to enjoy. Some of our most precious, living resources are being loved to death and it will be hard to replace these places if we don’t act now. Sometimes, the negative impact makes headlines, such as in the over-visitation and degradation of places like Hanging Lake and Conundrum Hot Springs. But usually, the impact is more subtle. For example, most people simply don’t know that all trails require maintenance to stay safe and sustainable, even if no one is littering or disobeying signage. Roughly three-quarters of all Coloradans recreate outside, yet less than 1% volunteer in outdoor stewardship. It’s this disconnect that VOC is trying to solve in order to maintain the health, safety, and accessibility of our outdoor spaces – for residents, visitors, and the plants and wildlife that share our home.
WHAT WORDS OF ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER LEADERS LOOKING TO MAKE AN IMPACT?
Big visions are achieved by small everyday actions. My advice is that no matter how large a challenge may seem, each of us can make a difference by working collaboratively and in partnership with others. We see this every day at VOC. We witness it in the dedication and hard work of thousands of VOC volunteers who donate “sweat equity” on over 75 VOC stewardship projects each year. We are grateful to funders who commit their financial resources that accumulatively enable us to offer relevant programs that benefit both the public and the land. We see it in our partners throughout the state who work to strengthen volunteerism in their local communities. This is life-long work; it isn’t something to do once and never again. The big vision always involves a commitment to responsible living, a service-oriented lifestyle that sees every seemingly small action within the bigger picture.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT THE IMPORTANT WORK YOU’RE DOING?
We want every person to know that no matter who they are, there is a place and a way for them to get involved. We have volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. We have volunteers who help by cooking food on projects, packing and transporting tools, taking photographs, stuffing envelopes at our office, or helping clean our database. Others help by donating funds or goods instead of time; others help by spreading the word about our work to their social networks. We all can contribute in our own way and even if it’s not with VOC, any action you take is appreciated.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
We encourage everyone to think about their impact on the natural world around them and consider how our actions can better match our words when it comes to caring for Colorado. This includes everything from using a reusable water bottle to making larger commitments such as volunteering with, or donating to, VOC or other outdoor stewardship organizations. A great place to see all the ways to support VOC’s work is by visiting voc.org/get-involved, signing up for our newsletter at voc.org, or joining the conversation on our social media platforms on Facebook and @VOC_Colorado.
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