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Volunteer: Take ownership of a cause to improve community


A young boy walked up to Steve Houser while he handed out "I love trees" buttons at a community event.

"He asked me if I knew all the benefits of trees and then began to tell me all of them," recalled Houser, who owns a tree care business in Dallas. "I was amazed, so I asked him where he'd learned so much."

Turns out, the youngster had heard Houser teach about trees at a youth event two years earlier.

"That's the sort of thing that helps me know it's worth it," said Houser, who volunteers for Texas AgriLife Extension Service as a Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. "From being a volunteer, I was fortunate to realize that, by becoming involved, one can make a difference. That is worth more than making a bazillion bucks."

On the surface, rabbits are what summoned Beth Lawrence of College Station to volunteer with AgriLife Extension's 4-H program.

"A rabbit project was great for my children, so I wanted to share that experience with other children," said Lawrence, who lends her support as a 4-H volunteer by attending meetings, driving children to events and being responsive to requests for help from her county's AgriLife Extension agents.

But the legacy of adults who were role models in her youth is what really prodded Lawrence to volunteer.

"I had good volunteer role models when I was a 4-H member as a child and that helped form my character, who I am and what is important to me," she said. "So as a legacy to one person in particular who is now deceased, I want to pass on that legacy to other children."

Her best reward is "surprising in simplicity"--a thank you note written by a child whom she taught about rabbits, she said.

"It's hanging on my bulletin board as a reminder to me of why I volunteer," Lawrence said. "One of my adult leaders once told me that it is not that you have to do big things, but do little things that ripple out into your community."

Houser and Lawrence epitomize "people in action" celebrated this week as the Points of Light Institute's National Volunteer Week, according to Courtney Dodd, AgriLife Extension volunteer development specialist.

AgriLife Extension volunteers gave more than 5.3 million hours of service in 2008--a total that would have otherwise taken about 2,560 full-time employees to handle, Dodd said. In all, nearly 104,000 people volunteered to help AgriLife Extension's programs for youth, gardening, natural resources and health.

Houser's decision to volunteer in his community came after he helped save some trees that had been targeted for removal in a building project.

"That started me down the road," said Houser. "I love volunteering. I tell people to take ownership of a cause, put your name on it and volunteer your time to improve something."

He noted that becoming a "master" of a topic just means getting "a license to continue to learn."

The AgriLife Extension master programs use the agency's specialists to teach people specific subject matter, who then are capable of providing top-notch information to others in the community. In fact, one earns the title "master" by returning a designated number of community service hours in turn for being taught by the AgriLife Extension faculty.

Houser estimates that, in more than 10 years of volunteering for gardening and naturalist programs, he has taught as many as 50,000 youngsters the values of trees to a community.

Volunteering with AgriLife Extension begins with about 17,000 people who work with the agency's county and regional experts to prioritize local educational program needs, according to Dr. Ed Smith, the agency's director.

With those program needs identified, volunteers trained by AgriLife Extension specialists and county agents then conduct meetings, trainings, workshops and hands-on events for targeted audiences or the public. About 3 million people in Texas were assisted by AgriLife Extension volunteers last year, Dodd said.

"AgriLife Extension earns an extra return, thanks to the impact of volunteers," Smith said. "Even with quality programs, our faculty could not meet the demands of the state's 24 million people, let alone national and international demands, without the volunteers.

"No matter what delivery technology is available, we must also engage substantial trained volunteer help to extend our human capital," Smith added.

To find AgriLife Extension programs that need volunteers, see http://texasvolunteer.tamu.edu/.

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