When I was a little girl (like many dreamy-eyed little girls) I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was fascinated by whales: their enormous bodies, buoyed by undulating ocean currents; their ultrasonic songs, traveling hundreds of miles through the water like whispers with wings; and their mysterious lives, hidden from the prying eyes of researchers, lived deep beneath the shimmering surface. To me, nothing was more beautiful, more magical, or more exciting. Then I learned about whaling and the bloody history of commerce on the open water. I learned about strandings, the result of sonic pollution, and saw pictures in the newspaper of hundreds of glorious humpbacks drying to dust in the noon sun.
It was the first time I felt the fire of action burning in my belly. I had to do something! So, I wrote up a petition on my Hello Kitty stationary, demanding that the government do more to protect the world’s most majestic creatures. I walked from house to house, getting signatures from my neighbors. Then I sent it to my Senator, John Kerry. Two weeks later, I received a letter back, hand-written, from the Senator. It was a big moment. My letter probably didn’t change anything politically (Kerry was already in favor of strong environmental protection policy) but the project changed me. Suddenly I felt powerful—like my voice mattered among the millions of voices, like I could do something to make a difference.
My first volunteering job after I finished high school was with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I worked on a whale watching vessel, recording our sightings for an NOAA database. I worked with the naturalists on the boat, learning as much as I could about the whales. It was mind-boggling seeing the whales up close, outside the confines of the aquarium. By the end of the summer I was leading tours, spouting off facts for tourists. Today, NOAA offers a wide variety of volunteering opportunities, from diving for fish counts to education and outreach. Volunteers can work at any of the 13 National Marine Sanctuaries, from the East Coast of the U.S. to American Samoa.
I think the best volunteering experiences are those that lie close to our hearts. Think about what makes you feel that fire in your belly. When do you feel like you need to do more? If you are going to give yourself to a volunteer project, make it something deeply meaningful to you and you’ll come out of it feeling stronger, more complete: changed for the better.