A Teachable Moment

“Perhaps the rebuilding of the body and spirit is the greatest service derivable from our forests, for what worth are material things if we lose the character and quality of people that are the soul of America.” (Arthur Carhart, 1919-1922)

When I was student teaching as part of my undergraduate program in Michigan I taught Jr. High Science and Conservation Education. I was fortunate to study with Dr. Bill Stapp—an amazing outdoor educator who sadly passed on in 2001. He left behind an amazing legacy of environmental educators. It was during this period that I learned about teachable moments . . . most likely from Dr. Stapp. Teachable moments are those windows of opportunity that present themselves with unanticipated events. Often these opportunities go unnoticed. When they are recognized as an invitation to share understanding, knowledge, or experience, magic can happen. People become more open to new ideas and learning than they otherwise might have been. As a researcher I’ve seen this happen with an upswing in the adoption of community preparedness and defensible space activities following wildfires.

This past month Forest Service employees experienced a teachable moment . . . and the delivery was much different from the usual (and some would say much too frequent) required on-line training. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell suffered a heart attack on January 5. Fortunately he recognized the symptoms and quickly took appropriate action. As word spread throughout the agency, employees across the country requested information about heart attack symptoms. The Chief’s right coronary artery had become blocked.  After a stent was placed in the artery, he was soon resting at home and in the days that followed agency employees became much more aware of how to recognize the signs of heart attack and the importance of taking quick action.

Heart health is a research interest of mine, especially in terms of the disease prevention and rehabilitation benefits of spending time in nature. Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect, recreation planner and a forester by training, experienced first-hand benefits from spending time in the forest. Recent studies support Carhart’s declaration (above) about forest benefits, finding that as little as 15-30 minutes a day in a natural setting contributes to improved health.  Spending time in nature (see the September 2010 issue of Rural Connections; Volume 5, Issue 1 – 10MB PDF) can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and stress, increase immune system function and improve outlook on life—each is related to heart health.

A new report just released by the American Heart Association projects the annual cost to treat heart disease to triple by 2030, increasing from $273 billion to $818 billion (in 2008 dollars). Cases of heart attack and stroke are projected to rise about 25 percent, with 40.5 percent of Americans having some form of heart disease, up from 36.9 percent today. What if getting more people out into the forest more frequently could help reduce those figures? Research suggests this is possible. The Forest Service and other public land management agencies, including state and local parks and recreation departments, have an important role here.

A University of Michigan study recently found that those who spent time walking in nature had reduced stress and improved capacity to pay attention. Recreating on public lands is one way to spend time in nature, another way is through volunteering.

In December I participated in a strategic planning meeting for the Forest Service’s Volunteer and Service Program.  I was energized and inspired by the passion that Forest Service employees from across the country have for this important program. The Volunteer and Service Program promotes opportunities for people to assist the agency in fulfilling its mission of caring for the land and serving people.

I used to think that volunteer programs were merely a cost effective way to get work done when funding to hire employees or contractors was inadequate. While this is often the case, after interacting with volunteers myself and reading the research findings of others, it is clear to me that the benefits of the volunteer program go far beyond what is accomplished on the land with a variety of benefits accruing to the volunteers themselves. Providing volunteer opportunities is truly serving the people.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service 61.8 million Americans across the country, including 8.2 million young adults between 16-24 years old, contributed 8 billion hours of volunteer service valued at $162 billion in 2008. Even through the recent economic downturn volunteerism has continued to grow. Volunteering is part of doing business for both non-profit groups and government agencies and part of a healthy lifestyle for Americans of all ages.

My personal interest in volunteer programs was piqued a few years ago when several Forest Service volunteers that I was interviewing impressed me with what they described as their desire to “give back”, “share what we know”, and to experience the “aha moments” that come with the experience of introducing children and inner city children and adults to the wonders of nature.  The volunteers I spoke with—all Baby Boomers and many retirees—described their desire to stay physically, mentally, emotionally and socially active and engaged in their community through sharing their expertise, knowledge, and passion for nature and special places.  Studies have shown that good health is the most important factor contributing to a happy retirement. The retirees I interviewed seemed to have figured that out for themselves.

Benefits of volunteering include reduced stress and depression, a greater sense of well-being, purpose and meaning, and longer, healthier lives, especially for adults 65 and older—a group that is growing.  Totaling over 76 million Americans, Boomers, including all those born from 1946-1964 and making up over 40 percent of the population, have begun to retire. This pool of potential volunteers represents both an opportunity and a challenge.

Volunteering is a healthy thing to do. Volunteering in nature compounds the health and well-being benefits experienced by volunteers. The Forest Service, along with other resource management agencies, provides a variety of volunteer opportunities and experiences that can contribute to the improved health and well-being of volunteers.  Thus, in addition to contributing to stewardship and restoration of the land, supplementing education and interpretation programs, accomplishing trail and campground maintenance, participating in research studies and other volunteer efforts volunteer opportunities contribute to improving human health and reducing health care costs.

I can’t think of a better win-win opportunity. The challenge will be whether the Forest Service and other government agencies can raise to the occasion presented by this large—and growing larger by the day—pool of potential and eager volunteers. I’ll be revisiting topics of health and nature, volunteering and baby boomers in future blogs. For now how about sharing your favorite teachable moments?

Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.

p.s. — February is Heart Awareness Month. Here are some additional resources for understanding and maintaining heart health:

February is Heart Awareness Month (www.medicinenet.com)

10 Myths About Heart Disease (yourlife.usatoday.com)

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