The idea of volunteering your time and giving back to the local area you are visiting is a central ethos to the Community Foundation of Elmira – Corning and the Finger Lakes, and this is something that I was privileged to experience for myself during my own visit to New York State.
New York state is a truly fantastic destination for all backpackers and perhaps one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, but tourism has a huge impact on the region and the communities within it, and unfortunately not all of that is a good thing.
To ensure that impact is more positive than negative, tourists and travellers alike in the Finger Lakes are being urged to volunteer their time to give back to the places and communities that they love visiting.
Now anyone who knows me knows that I am not a huge fan of voluntourism. When it is done well it is amazing and can do a lot of good, but when it is bad, when the focus is on tourists getting a nice selfie and an international organisation making profit, it can do a lot of real harm.
The greenwashing in the volunteering sector is all consuming, and I am always wary when I come across any ‘opportunity’ to ‘give back’.
Thankfully this time my pessimism could not have been more unfounded.
The Community Foundation of Elmira – Corning and the Finger Lakes is a non profit, public charity that relies on donations for grants and volunteer workers to support the needs and issues within the destinations, towns and communities of the Finger Lakes.
There are a wide range of community support projects, holistic health and wellbeing initiatives and even conservation projects that the community foundation is supporting, and travellers are in a great position to help them do just that. Not just through the almighty tourism dollar, but with time and effort too. In my short time in the Finger Lakes I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in a small way in just two of these programmes during my time in New York and I relished the opportunity.
The Food Bank of the Southern Tier.
The southern tier of the Finger Lakes region is a stunning place, full of charming towns, markets and stunning vistas for travellers to explore, but behind the tourist sheen the economic fortunes of the area are suffering.
The Food Bank of the Southern Tier is pretty self explanatory in both its need and its mission. The food bank is a non profit organisation that works to feed the communities throughout the southern Finger Lakes and works with a variety of churches, schools, shelters and soup kitchens to feed almost 19,000 people a week.
I was taken to the Food Bank’s main warehouse, a 65,000 foot space which receives millions of pounds of food every year and after a short welcome talk was quickly put to work.
I quickly flashed back to my youth working on various factory lines to earn money through college and university as we were faced with what looked like an endless supply of boxes and bread, except this time the work was considerably more valuable than my minimum wage pay packet. It was explained to us that these packets of donated bread were being boxed up and sorted by weight to be distributed through various programmes and communities.
I only got a small taste of what the hard working, dedicated volunteers at the centre do every single day, but working alongside them showed me the importance of what they do. It may have seemed like a simple task at the time, putting loaves of bread and buns into boxes, weighing them and sending them down the production line, but each and every one of those boxes meant a family got to eat that night. And that is something truly worthwhile.
Tanglewood Nature Centre.
My next experience was something a little closer to my comfort zone and a very different type of experience to the food bank, but one equally as important.
The natural environment of the Finger Lakes is truly stunning, and nestled right in the middle of Chemung County’s superb Gleason Meadows and Frenchmans Bluff Preserve in Elmira New York, and surrounded by pristine forests, rivers and farmland is the spectacular Tanglewood Nature Center and Museum.
Given my love of hiking, adventure travel, nature and wildlife, this is a place that would automatically be on my radar for any trip, and before coming to the Finger Lakes had no idea that it was even possible to visit somewhere with so much nature and wildlife in New York!
The Tanglewood Nature Centre is a huge, not for profit nature park and organisation with over ten miles of trails that are absolutely free for anyone to come and use and enjoy being out in nature. It is one of New York’s forefront ecological organisations and supports conservation and preservation efforts in the area not only by offering a comprehensive educational programme for both children and adults, but also providing care and a home for a wide variety of native and exotic animals.
The nature centre is not a zoo, and nor is it a protected national park that houses rehabilitated wildlife, but it does provide an essential link in the conservation chain by taking in and providing a home for a variety of injured, semi wild animals that cannot survive in the wild for a variety of reasons, and it works alongside a variety of full wildlife rehabilitation programmes, state rehabilitators and facilities.
Many of those animals that do live in wild conditions in the park, such as Rattlesnakes, are legally protected and left alone to enjoy their lives in peace. Others, such as Hank the Red Tailed Hawk, who has a damaged wing and cannot survive in the wild because he cannot fly long enough to hunt properly, are kept and cared for in a safe and rich environment, and are used to inspire and teach schoolchildren as part of the centre’s mission to increase awareness, understanding and caring for the natural environment.
The actual volunteering work I helped out with didn’t really involve all that much on my part. I was asked to help maintain a trail and replace a series of interactive story boards for children, a simple enough but important task. This may not be seen as a lot of work and technically I suppose it wasn’t, I enjoyed walking the trail as much as I did replacing the storyboard posts, but when you consider that the volunteers here make up the equivalent of over 24 full time staff, that is a lot of time and wage budget saved that can be plowed straight back into the important work the centre is doing and frees up the time for the qualified staff to do their work educating people and caring for the animals.
This in and of itself made the work worthwhile, and honestly if I had planned for a longer trip or if I at some point end up settling here for a period of time I would be here all the time!
But whatever the specific job you are doing there to help out, whether it is keeping and maintaining the trails for other travellers to enjoy after you or helping out with school fairs or special events at the museum, you are giving back to the local environment as well as the centre that has invited you in to enjoy it.
And if you don’t volunteer, then I would still advise taking the time to visit Tanglewood and see what a stunning location it is as well as some of the great education and conservation work they do at the museum and even consider giving a donation, after all it is free to enter!
How can you get involved?
This is not the type of voluntourism where some idiot pays a fortune to cuddle a baby panda or paint the wall of a shed over and over in a thirld world nation to help some poor underpriveliged kids. This is not the type of volunteering that people only use to give themselves a nice selfie for Facebook to make themselves feel better and show off. These are real community projects that genuinely need help. This is genuine volunteering.
All that is needed is your time. If you are travelling slowly and independently on a gap year (or more) then this is something you have in abundance, if you are heading here on a shorter trip adding an extra day or two to your itinerary won’t make much of a difference to you, but will make a huge difference to the communities here.
To volunteer at the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, just head over to their website and click on the volunteer section to sign up. It really is that simple and they want to make it as easy as possible for anyone, even travellers, to come and help. You don’t need any specific skills or qualifications, you don’t need to pay any money to an international organisation who will keep all the profits, all you need is time. Just sign up and help out.
To volunteer at the Tanglewood Nature Centre, simply fill out an application form. Again, it is that simple.
Give back while you travel.
I loved spending some time travelling in New York and the Finger Lakes and am glad that even in a tiny, perhaps insignificant way I was still able to give back and say thank you to the towns and communities that welcomed me in and gave me experiences I will treasure for a lifetime.
Using Philanthropy as a way to support local causes and communities is something that all travellers can do, and is a great way to support the places you are visiting and make sure that tourism has a positive impact wherever you go.
So whenever you travel, wherever you travel, try and incorporate this ethos into your own round the world adventures. You, the areas you visit and will all be better off for it.
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This article was written in partnership with Finger Lakes Wine Country, the Community Foundation of Elmira Corning and the Finger Lakes and TBEX. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.