The Outdoor Adventures program at NIU has provided outdoor recreation experiences for students, faculty, staff and the general public for many years.
Assistant Director Christine Lagattolla has found that one way to really engage and inform participants is through the mutually beneficial experience of volunteer trips. Lagattolla participates in a volunteer vacation each year with the American Hiking Society.
The Outdoor Adventures program has collaborated locally with the DeKalb County Forest Preserve, nearby state parks and Chicago-based Openlands for day trips that are provided free to interested volunteers. Extended trips over spring break students participate in an in-depth project with organizations that have included Living Lands and Waters and the U.S. Forest Service.
“We find the volunteer trips to be an important part of what we provide to the community,” Lagattolla said.
This spring, two trips of students ventured out to give back.
One group of students traveled to Memphis to help with a mass cleanup effort organized by the nonprofit Living Lands and Waters. Bottles, children’s toys, tires and appliances were some of the refuse pulled from the banks of the lake. More than 50 volunteers from 15 different schools helped to clear 50,000 pounds of garbage in Mackellar Lake.
The second group made an everlasting impact in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Their work demonstrated an appreciation for a beautiful and remote natural space. The team worked to rebuild a boardwalk that will last more than 30 years and performed additional trail maintenance. The group left Georgia feeling accomplished and received praise from the Ranger District for contributing approximately $3,000 worth of labor, equal to two months of a full-time seasonal worker’s salary.
The experience not only helps the environment but it also benefits those who choose to get involved.
“This trip gave me renewed enthusiasm to go out and make a difference in my community. The attitude throughout the entire trip was positive and upbeat,” one participant noted. “It was rewarding to experience the direct change I could make on the environment and the surrounding community.”
Often, Outdoor Adventure’s trips are cancelled due to expense to student wallets. However, when these volunteer opportunities have been offered to students without the trip fees, the trips were always full and able to proceed, introducing students to a new world of outdoor recreation.
Although this year the support for running free volunteer trips was unavailable, the program hopes it will return in the future.
Unfortunately, not all university outdoor programs provide opportunities like these.
This past weekend, Lagattolla and Student Manager Nathan Tripp presented about NIU’s success in philanthropy at the Arkansas Regional Programming Conference. Many universities and recreation directors at the event looked to NIU’s Outdoor Adventure program as an exemplary model on which to base their future volunteer programs.
“NIU’s students want to be a part of changing the world,” Lagattolla said, “and I think we should provide the students with as many outlets as possible to pursue their interests and make giving back a reality.”