California Volunteer Takes Time to Smell the Flowers & Inspires Global Love for Environment
Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Gary Flanders. Read his story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.
69-year-old Gary Flanders had moved to the West Coast with his wife to be closer to family when the retiree decided to take advantage of his beautiful surroundings in Big Bear City, California. “I’ve always volunteered somewhere in my life. Looking around, I thought, boy, I’m in a National Forest, this is a great place to live. Let me do something here.”
First becoming a Certified California Naturalist, which meant he was trained in California’s unique environment, Gary began volunteering as a volunteer naturalist at Big Bear Discovery Center, a regional visitor and nature center part of the Southern California Mountains Foundation. Helping to support the center since 2015 through community outreach, training, leading tours and more, Gary has connected with hundreds of visitors through his volunteerism, and is spreading a message of conservation and environmental health globally.
What inspires you to volunteer?
It’s cliche. I like being a part of something that’s bigger than me.
Describe your role at Big Bear Discovery Center.
As a volunteer naturalist at Big Bear Discovery Center, I lead tours, train other volunteers, and develop ways to help people interpret what they see at our center. We do a lot of community outreach. I’ve swept some floors, washed some windows. I also volunteer at the center’s Adventure Outpost store. We have one of the most unique ecological environments in the country, there are certain species of flowers that can only be found here in the entire world, so people from all over the world come to visit.
Explain why volunteerism is rewarding for you.
This little girl was visiting from Malaysia, she had her hijab on, and she asked if it was ok if her brother took a photo of her and I with a big Coulter pine cone. She started following me on Instagram, I followed her back. She’s back home in Malaysia and we still talk to each other. This is why we do this. Meeting some little kid who lights up when they see a butterfly or bird or little flower. Volunteering is about connecting with other people, and through my service, I meet people from everywhere.
Share one personal story with me from your volunteerism.
I was doing animal and other artifacts demonstrations, and this little girl came up to me and she just stood there and stared. I picked up a pine cone and I was being very Fred Roger-y. I told her about the pine cone, which tree it came from. I was sharing all this great info with her, she was very polite and didn’t interrupt. I kind of paused, and she asked, ‘Do you bake?’ (laughs). Her question threw me off, and I responded that I’d made bread once. She asked if it was good and I told her it turned out pretty good (laughs). This is why I do this. It’s about making a connection.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
Volunteering is a way to connect with others and to be of good to the community. Because you’re not paid to do this work, you do it better. It’s something you want to do (laughs).
You spend a lot of time outdoors. What’s your favorite plant?
The Dudleya – it’s called a “live forever”. It’s just this unique little plant, a tiny succulent that needs the environment we have here in California. Our super blooms are just 1.5 – 2 inches tall, we call them “Belly Flowers” because you have to get down on your belly to take a picture of them.
How can readers help?
We’ve had to pause our volunteerism during the pandemic. It’s just really, really tough. We’re hopeful to get back to volunteering when it’s safe, and we’re trying to think of safe ways to keep interest in the forest and continue educating people. Please visit the Big Bear Discovery Center website for more information about how you can help.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Gary Flanders? Find local volunteer opportunities.