Some people love doing something for nothing. When that something is done with

  • Heart, from a place of selflessness and love, not for compensation,
  • Passion, with a focused purpose and intensity, even when challenged, and
  • Enthusiasm, with an attitude filled with energy and unconditional commitment

it’s called Volunteering!

But why would you do something for nothing? I’m glad you asked!

Decades of research have shown that the act of volunteering has wonderful mental and physical health benefits, including an increased sense of self-confidence, a reduction of stress and less potential for depression, and great opportunities for exercise and even travel. Michael Lindenmayer, a well-known entrepreneur, writer, and systems designer, identified the traits of the best volunteers, and there are 3 from his list that I find most relevant to my own experience with volunteering:

  • Volunteers want their causes to generate major positive impact
  • Volunteers are energizers: You feel amped up when you’re with them, friendships form, you feel like family
  • Volunteers think less about what they can get and more about what they can contribute

Now a quick question: Can you name a volunteer organization that most people the world over would know by name? 

Most people wouldn’t hesitate to name the big ones: the global Red Cross/Red Crescent network, the Peace Corps, or any of the dozens and dozens of Without Borders groups, including Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Teachers, and even Musicians. What’s important to know is this: These organizations exist because of volunteerism.

If your lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to travel with a particular Without Borders group, consider this: Right here in the beautiful city of Tucson, there are many 501(c)3 non-profit organizations who work with animals that are in great need of volunteers. In fact, because they are non-profits and operate on very lean budgets, they could not fulfill their missions without volunteers. Those most close to my heart include the Tucson Wildlife Center, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, and, my personal favorite, the Reid Park Zoological Society, the 501(c)3 organization which supports the city-owned Reid Park Zoo.

At last count, Reid Park Zoo had more than 300 volunteers ranging in age from 13 to 94! You’d be right in assuming the largest group includes the adult Docents, the friendly people wearing red shirts who roam the zoo, talking with guests, and freely sharing their knowledge about the animals they love and the conservation messages they represent. But there are more! Community Engagement Volunteers who work in teams—parents and their tweens or other-abled adults and their supportive aides—are also out and about just waiting to talk with you. 

On weekends and at special events, you’ll see members of our famous Zoo Crew, teen volunteers wearing turquoise or purple shirts, sharing their knowledge about the animals or their latest conservation project and fundraising with their hand-made Go Green Kits. Just how enthusiastic are they? The Zoo Crew was honored with the Youth Volunteer of the Year Award in 2020 sponsored by the Southern Arizona Volunteer Management Association, and that’s something to be proud of! 

Also working tirelessly behind the scenes are the Animal Care Volunteers who help keepers and staff maintain the larger habitat areas for giraffe, goats, and elephants. This work keeps the animals physically and mentally healthy by providing clean living space and lots of stimulating enrichment. 

Other volunteers you might see at the zoo, often observing animals and recording their behaviors, are the Animal Well-Being or Animal Care College Interns, individuals gaining hands-on training for their college and professional degree programs. That group includes University of Arizona students studying for undergraduate degrees in areas such as wildlife biology , wildlife conservation management, and veterinary science. During the Clinical Year of their doctoral programs, University of Arizona veterinary medicine students may choose to work behind the scenes with the Reid Park Zoo veterinary team in their state-of-the-art health center.

Volunteers come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and from all sorts of backgrounds. Young teen volunteers learn life skills like empathy, patience, and time management with the added benefits of gaining competence in subject matter (wildlife, conservation) and experiencing independence from their parents. Career-oriented volunteers put theory into practice with practical, hands-on training relevant to their professions. Older volunteers use personal and professional skills developed over a lifetime as parents, teachers, business leaders, artists, and makers. As a group, they all foster one thing: Our connection with nature and our need to conserve and protect biological diversity.

If they’re all so different, what’s the common denominator among all these zoo volunteers? Heart, passion, and enthusiasm! With these attributes plus a good dose of classroom training and feet-on-the-ground shadowing experiences, volunteers happily go about their day engaging with guests and forging connections—between you, me, the animals, and our precious natural world. 

In her poem, Earthrise, our youngest ever U.S. Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, inspires us all with her insight into our human connection with, and our shared need to protect, the natural world. For me, this is a clear call to action, a call for volunteering:

“….We all care to protect this world,

This riddled blue marble, this little true marvel

To muster the verve and the nerve

To see how we can serve

Our planet. You don’t need to be a politician

To make it your mission to conserve, to protect,

To preserve that one and only home

That is ours,

To use your unique power

To give next generations the planet they deserve….”

If you have the *heart*, go ahead and make that leap. How the “next generations” of people and animals survive together depends on how we act today. Connect with a community that is close to your heart. With your gift of time, you’ll gain far more than you ever imagined. 


Important Notes: Some of the volunteer programs at Reid Park Zoo have been paused due to health and safety restrictions related to the Covid pandemic. Training for new volunteers, while historically in-person and on zoo grounds, may be done virtually for the same reasons. Check the zoo’s website frequently to determine when volunteer programs accept applications. 

If you can’t give your time as a volunteer for animals, you might consider making a monetary donation to your favorite non-profit organization. You can give locally to any of these great organizations—Tucson Wildlife Center , The Humane Society of Southern Arizona, and Reid Park Zoo or go global and find a cause through the Wildlife Conservation Network. You can research any charity you’d like to support through the Charity Navigator website to determine just how well an organization uses your donation. You’ll be pleased to know that all the organizations above have the highest 4-star rating.