Sierra Magazine: Explore, enjoy and protect the planet.
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CREATE | New Possibilities

You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.

Photo by Martin Sundberg
I've been on the job as executive director of the Sierra Club for half a year now and am getting a better feel for how this place works. Everyone wants to know what the new job is like and about the Club's plans for the future. Many people ask if I'm getting enough time with my kids. (As much as I can!) But the most popular question is the easiest to answer: What do I like most about the job?

You. I've been blown away by the grassroots energy that runs through everything the Club does, by all the people who work with tireless passion to make the world a better place.

Most of the volunteers I've met as I've crisscrossed the country will never see their name in the newspaper, appear on TV, or receive a prestigious award. They work for the joy of giving themselves over to a good cause.

The Sierra Club was started by volunteers, and we have an all-volunteer board of directors to this day. It took 36 years for the Club to hire its first full-time employee, Virginia Ferguson. She must have been good at her job, because another quarter century went by before we decided to hire employee number two. That's when David Brower got the same job I have now.

More than 50 years later, we have hundreds of hardworking Sierra Club staffers across the country. But they are still vastly outnumbered by the thousands of member-volunteers who elevate the Club to greatness.

Some show up for a beach cleanup or lead a local hike. Others update the code for a local chapter's Web site, raise money, or crunch spreadsheets for a finance committee. Some volunteers work with kids through programs such as Inner City Outings, Building Bridges to the Outdoors, and Military Families Outdoors. Others devote their vacations to restoring trails or parklands during Sierra Club Outings service trips.

And of course, volunteers continue to spearhead many of our most important campaigns: fighting coal plants, promoting clean energy, and protecting treasured landscapes. And they win. The countrywide network of volunteers in our Water Sentinels program aren't afraid to get their hands dirty (or wet) as they monitor pollution levels. Lynn Henning, a Water Sentinel, won the distinguished Goldman Prize in 2010 for exposing the polluting practices of factory farms in her native Michigan.

From where I live, I can see the legacy of one of our greatest volunteers every time I look across San Francisco Bay toward Mt. Tamalpais. Dr. Edgar Wayburn not only helped to save much of that mountain from developers; he also was the driving force behind the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Redwood National Park, and the protection of 100 million acres of Alaska wilderness. For those efforts, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor, in 1999. In bestowing it, President Bill Clinton noted that Wayburn had "saved more of our wilderness than any person alive."

Wayburn passed away last March at the age of 103. Will we ever see another volunteer who can change the world as dramatically as he did? I wouldn't rule it out. Just a few days ago, for instance, I learned that a 20-year-old Sierra Club volunteer from the Puerto Rico Chapter, Ana Elisa Perez-Quintero, had received a Brower Youth Award. She's been working to save her island's Northeast Ecological Corridor with an energy and enthusiasm that would have made Wayburn proud. His tradition is alive and well.

Gandhi said, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." So join us. Pick up the phone or get in touch online with your state chapter or local Sierra Club affiliate. If there isn't a volunteer group in your town or at your school, be the person who starts one. Volunteering gives you an opportunity to work with friends and neighbors to make a real difference. Don't miss it for the world.

MICHAEL BRUNE is the executive director of the Sierra Club. You can e-mail him at and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.



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