Your summer plans might not include spending time with a local charity, but volunteering at a maritime-minded cause can yield unexpected benefits, and the Chesapeake Bay is ripe with rewarding opportunities. Consider oyster gardening to clean the waters with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, serve as a tour guide to make history come alive aboard a 1940s-era skipjack at the Annapolis Maritime Museum, or help teens build boats at Chesapeake Wooden Boatbuilders School to nurture youth creativity and imagination.
Give-back opportunities that bolster the Chesapeake waterways range from one day to a season or year-round. Here are some great groups to get you started:
Picking up trash might not sound sexy, but it can have a huge impact on the lands and waters in the Chesapeake watershed. Started in 2002, Project Clean Stream is the regional nonprofit’s longest-standing volunteer project. Hundreds of site captains help organize thousands of volunteers to educate Chesapeake Bay lovers about trash and organize local clean-ups. “Volunteering at a local Project Clean Stream site is a great way to impact your community. These events last one to two hours, and the results are instant,” says Lauren Sauder, capacity-building projects manager. “For a season-long activity, become a Project Clean Stream site captain. As such, you can choose a clean-up site (as simple as a local shoreline), submit it to the Chesapeake Network, and the Alliance will assist you in organizing volunteers and preparing for your event. We’ll even supply you with free gloves and trash bags.” Visit chesapeakenetwork.org to register or submit a clean-up site at allianceforthebay.org
Take visitors on a voyage to learn about and relive the days when skipjacks dredged the Chesapeake Bay for oysters. Volunteers can serve as crew or a tour guide onboard the 1940-built 75’ long Wilma Lee, one of the last vessels of this commercial sailing fleet and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its mission is to educate about the Annapolis area’s maritime heritage in a variety of hands-on and close-up ways. Another is to help maintain the wooden boats on display at the museum campus on Second Street in the old McNasby Oyster Company building overlooking the Bay and at the 12-acre campus across Back Creek at the Ellen O. Moyer Nature Park. “Our Wooden Boat Crew volunteers help us maintain the boats on display at both campuses,” says Cassie Weithman, marketing director. “To serve on the Wilma Lee, we ask people to volunteer at least two to three times per month.” An online volunteer sign-up page is on the website. In warm months, the organization hosts one-day garden and grounds workdays that are perfect for families.
Best known for its herds of wild horses (alleged descendants from a 17th century shipwrecked Spanish galleon), Assateague needs volunteers to help park rangers interpret the pristine beach environment, bays, coves and marshes on this 37-mile-long island. Examples include interpretive kayak programs, surf fishing demonstrations, and marine explorers’ programs. Volunteers can also assist weekly at the Toms Cove Visitors Center, located on Beach Road outside of the town of Chincoteague. The center offers beach and birdlife exhibits, educational brochures and a marine aquarium with a touch tank, as well as services such as providing overnight fishing passes, campfire reservations, and a lost and found. “We interview our volunteer candidates to make sure that their skill set and interests match our needs and that we can provide a meaningful and productive experience for them. We also provide training, the length of which depends on the volunteer activities but typically takes about 40 to 80 hours spread over several weeks,” says Gretchen Knapp, supervisor of the Virginia District Division of Interpretation and Education. For a one-day volunteer opportunity, register at the Visitor Center for the annual beach cleanup on September 23. For more, download a volunteer brochure from the website.
Volunteer to garden — oysters that is. Attend an oyster gardening seminar to pick up baby oysters, wire cages and know-how. Then, making sure they don’t touch the bottom, hang cages in the water at your dock or a public waterfront dock, community pier or marina that’s part of the CBF’s oyster gardening program. Check your oysters every week or two and in a year, the fully grown mollusks will be ready to plant into the foundation’s sanctuary reefs and help create a healthier Chesapeake Bay. Seminar dates, times and location are on the website. To volunteer for a day, register online to attend one of the Virginia’s CBF’s Clean the Bay Day litter clean-ups. “In Maryland, we are always looking for volunteers for large-scale tree plantings in the spring and fall,” says Kenny Fletcher, the Virginia communications coordinator. “These plantings take place on farms near streams that flow into larger waterways such as the Potomac and Patuxent rivers that boaters may frequent. The new trees improve downstream water quality.”
St. Michaels, MD
Help guests find their personal connection to the Chesapeake, its history, heritage and habitat, as a docent, interpreter or guest host. This might entail guiding a 90-minute walking tour around 18 waterfront acres to explore a working boatyard, see artifacts from the region’s oystering and crabbing days, and hiking to the top of the 1879-built Hooper Strait Lighthouse for a bird’s eye view. Or, you could narrate a river cruise on the 1920s-era buyboat, the Winnie Estelle, or talk about displays like the water bird exhibit that details the hundreds of species that migrate through the region each year. Some 300+ volunteers give time here year-round or seasonally. “For those with nautical experience and/or interest, there are opportunities for on-the-water crew supporting our historic floating fleet, as well as roles available helping its shipyard, Charity Boat Donation Program, and Rising Tide after-school program for local youth,” says Eric Detweiler, communications specialist. The museum’s volunteer application is on its website.
North East, MD
If your boat rebuilding and repair skills lean to wood rather than plastic, then volunteer at this school where all the directors volunteer their time. A day’s work may include putting primer on an 18’ 1926-built Old Town Ideal canoe or the transom on a 1980s-era single-sail 15’ Marsh Cat in the process of getting glued together. The school started in 1989 as an adult education program and has since partnered with the Upper Bay Museum and Cecil College. “We also offer a one-week teen boat school annually during the last week of June,” says Allan ‘Bud’ Gillis, a past museum board member and long-time instructor. “We have six teens this year, and they build their own 16’ plywood canoes from pre-cut kits. After basic step-by-step instructions from boat school members, the school’s volunteers and family members assist the teens with building and painting their boats. At the end of the week, we have a mass launch, and the teens then take their canoes home.” North East is 30 miles southwest of Wilmington, DE, and 50 miles northeast of Baltimore.
Get wet and help shine a spotlight on clean water, too. That’s what this nonprofit’s volunteers can do at one of the RiverPalooza events, so the public can enjoy the rivers and tributaries in the Potomac and Shenandoah watersheds via organized canoe outings, fishing excursions and kayak adventures. RioPalooza events reach out to Spanish speakers, too. “For a season-long give back, become a water quality monitor,” invites Fritz Schneider, communications director. “The program spans from May to September, water samples are collected and analyzed from 24 locations once a week, and results are reported to the public. Info for both programs is on the network’s website.
Be a volunteer captain with the oldest river conservation group in the nation. “We are always happy to work with a volunteer captain who will take our staff, interns or volunteers out to designated monitoring sites to track water quality. We provide training and location information, as well as pay for four gallons of gas for a typical three-hour monitoring tour,” says Jesse Iliff, executive director. A tour like this, conducted Wednesday to Friday from spring to fall, departs from the Port Annapolis Marina to GPS-market monitoring stations. There, crews use handheld devices to measure dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity and clarity, and take visual observations of the waters’ color and weather conditions. New this year is a chance for volunteers to help photograph oyster reefs, as part of the SRA’s partnership with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Cameras will be deployed at the association’s restored oyster reefs for an hour or so each, then collected and returned to shore for analysis of the footage. SRA posts volunteer interest forms online.
Gloucester Point, VA
Put people and public-speaking skills to use by volunteering at fairs and festivals or leading campus tours at this marine research and education center, which is among the largest in America. “We participate in 17 to 20 festivals annually in Hampton Roads, Richmond, the Northern Neck and surrounding areas, reaching over 3,000 people. Volunteers help set up and take down educational displays, and tell attendees about VIMS research topics, such as sharks and marine biodiversity. These are a four-to-six-hour commitment,” explains Kristen Sharpe, assistant director of outreach and engagement. “Campus tours reach nearly 1,000 people annually from around the nation, and volunteers lead groups through active lab locations where visitors can talk to scientists. Labs cover topics like seawater research and coastal economy. Tours typically last for 1.5 to 2 hours.” Volunteer positions are posted on the website. Located across Coleman Bridge from Yorktown, VIMS also houses the graduate school in marine science for the College of William & Mary.