This past week was definitely for the birds.
Fred Rogers used to say, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
There are a lot of scary things in the news these days, so for the past week Sandy and I were blessed to be surrounded by the helpers, and it was beautiful. What was even more significant is that this amazing group of helpers was helping another incredible group of helpers at the Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI). The icing on the cake is that REGI is led by one of the most remarkable helpers we’ve ever met, named Marge Gibson, who is the founder and Executive Director of the organization.
It was an experience that we will never forget, not just from the sore muscles that we’ll have for the next few days, but more so from the indelible mark that it has left on our hearts.
Last Saturday, Sandy and I celebrated our one-year anniversary of living full-time in an RV.
The next day, we arrived in Antigo, Wisconsin to start what has turned out to be one of our most memorable and rewarding experiences since this journey began for us.
We were able to help with a project at REGI that was organized through the A Year to Volunteer organization. A Year to Volunteer was founded by Shar and Phil Roos. I had done a podcast with Shar and Phil back in April. I first started following them on social media in January after they had commented on my Instagram post about Sandy’s little fall when we were rescuing a dog that had fallen into the water next to our campsite in Key West. I checked out their website and absolutely loved the concept of what they were doing. Their mission was something that was very near and dear to my heart, so I wanted to help tell their story.
Volunteering has always been something that has been in my blood for my entire life, obviously inherited from my mother. A large part of my mom’s journey revolved around volunteer work. Some of the best memories that Sandy and I have had on this journey so far were when we volunteered at the Dream Center of Southeast Texas and in Sulphur, Louisiana with Hurricane Laura Relief efforts. We have always enjoyed the opportunity to give back when we still lived in a sticks and bricks house. We were lucky and kind of just fell into the Dream Center and Sulphur projects, but we weren’t exactly sure how we would go about fueling our desire to give back moving forward. Some organizations make it a cumbersome process in order for people to get involved. Phil and Shar wanted to make the process of getting involved as seamless as possible, especially because they were dealing with RVer’s, which often times can come with many moving parts logistically. This is one of the things that attracted me to A Year to Volunteer. They were creating a way to make it easy for people to get involved.
As we were scheduling the podcast, I sent them an email to give them some background on why we were doing what we were doing and shared the dedication that I had written for my mom from my book, which is also the first blog post of this website to help explain what sent us on this crazy Journey of My Mother’s Son in the first place.
As it turned out, there was an immediate connection between Phil and I. He had lost his mother in 2004 and I had lost mine in 2005. It seems as though both of our mother’s were cut from the same cloth and perhaps the two of us might each have a little bit of “mamma’s boy” still in us. We can relate to each other in the fact that even with almost two decades having passed since they left us, the pain of their absence still cuts deep. We also both have a very deep understanding that even though they are no longer here with us physically, their spirits are alive and well today, which gives us a great desire to continue to make them proud of the mark that we’re leaving on this earth.
When we did the podcast, I had told Shar and Phil that Sandy and I would definitely join them someday on one of their projects. As it turned out, the Lord had the stars align and we ended up being in the right place at the right time. Normally, A Year to Volunteer has its team of volunteers lined up months in advance and this project was no different. Not knowing where we’d be or when, Sandy and I did not initially sign-up, but when we found out that we’d be going through Wisconsin about the same time that they were going to be doing the REGI project, I reached out.
At first, it looked as though they had enough help, so I asked to be put on the waiting list for their Arizona project in October. Then, we received word on Friday that another couple was heading out on Saturday and we could come in on Sunday if we still wanted to help. Without hesitation, we jumped at the opportunity.
We really had no idea what was in store for us.
When we arrived, we were greeted by Shar and picked out our spot amongst the other 16 RV’s that had already been on the project for a week. Right after we got set-up, we were greeted by our neighbor for the week, Mark McWilliams, who would also end up being our Uber driver carting Sandy and I back and forth from the camp area to REGI. Sandy and I don’t tow a vehicle and where the group set-up camp for the project was located a few miles from REGI.
That afternoon, the group had a pot luck dinner and we were welcomed in by everyone with open arms.
However, from the moment we arrived, I knew that this group was going to be extremely special. I can’t exactly pinpoint it, but you could tell right away that there was something about these people that made them very different, in a very good way.
Then during the pot luck, in addition to all of the other volunteers, we got to meet Marge. Immediately, you could feel that she was gleaming with positive energy. She had thanked everyone for the work that they had done the week prior and gave us all cheese curds. She obviously knew the path to my heart. Sandy and I had just bought about six pounds of cheese on our way to Antigo on Saturday, including cheese curds, but that was 100% ok with me. I live by the theory that no amount of cheese is too much cheese for me.
On a serious note, though, the positive energy that Marge put out was contagious. She was genuine and you could see that this nonprofit was not just a vocation for her, but truly a passion. Something else that I could easily relate to.
Once we knew that we’d be helping on this project, I was able to do a little bit of research on REGI before we arrived. It made Sandy and I eager to help out. Obviously, after founding and working in the nonprofit world for 30 years I have a special connection with nonprofits and their founders. The passion that a nonprofit founder has for their organization is unlike anything else in the world. You could see that passion in Marge from the minute we met her. Again, something that I could easily relate to. She has been helping birds and wildlife for 30 years and I had been teaching kids life lessons through sports as well as the importance of giving back to the community for 30 years before Sandy and I answered God’s calling to embark on this new journey.
Sandy and I are both animal lovers as well, and Sandy’s years of volunteering at the Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue made us feel like somewhat of kindred spirits with Marge even before we met her.
On Monday morning, we hopped into the Jeep with Mark and his wife Chris to head over to REGI. The day started with a team meeting at 9 AM and as soon as the meeting ended, all of the volunteers scurried off to the tasks at hand. Sandy and I, being the new kids on the block, waited to get our instructions and then went off to our designated work assignments.
Sandy was off to help weed and landscape and I was off to join the team that was working on building the passerine enclosure. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am not the handiest male in the world. Very possibly, one of the least handy. I own some tools and have them in the RV in an old baseball bucket, but have generally found that I prefer that they stay in the bucket. I had made a decent living selling building materials for a while, but actually putting them together was never my forte. I spent years helping kids and teaching them how to throw and hit curve balls and fastballs both on and off the field. I was smart enough to surround myself with people who knew how to fix things, so that I didn’t have to do it myself. Nonetheless, there I was, in the midst of what would turn out to be ground zero of this particular project.
Again, when I first went in, I was greeted with smiles by everyone that I encountered. I quickly teamed up with Craig and helped him construct the walls for the different enclosures. I had to borrow a tape measure because mine was still in my baseball bucket back at the RV. I would make sure that I’d have it with me for the rest of the week though.
I again noticed how special this group of people that Sandy and I had surrounded ourselves with was. There was never any complaining about anything, if something changed, we just made the adjustment and kept moving forward. If there was a stand still or hold up in the area that someone was working in, we’d just pitch in and help somewhere else until we could get back to the original task.
I think what drove this attitude was simply by being around Marge and her staff. Every time that you would see one of them, they were working hard. They were also always smiling and if they made eye contact with you, they thanked you for what you were doing for their organization. You knew that Marge had created a positive working culture for her staff. That positive culture overflowed into the 42-member volunteer workforce that had descended upon the REGI facility for two weeks.
Again, it all flowed down from Marge. She treats everyone that she interacts with, whether a human or a bird, with dignity and respect.
Two injured bald eagles were brought into the facility during the project. One during the week before we had arrived and another on our final day. We were fortunate to see Marge and her team care and comfort these majestic creatures. They gained the birds trust in a matter of seconds, just as they had gained all of our trust as well. To see them take this eagle and speak softly to her calling her angel and beautiful girl and to see her completely remove all of the birds natural defense mechanisms was something that I can’t even justly put into words. All that I can say is that we were blessed to be able to witness it.
God created a special being when He created Marge Gibson and He gave her the calling to care for His other beautiful creatures while they can’t care for themselves. The goal of REGI is never to keep an animal captive. It is to rehabilitate them and get them back into the wild. We were also able to witness her and her staff release several rehabilitated birds in to the wild. Again, something that is difficult to describe. Birds and other animals operate on such a higher spiritual level than we do as humans. Every once in a while, you meet someone like Marge, who has been able to overcome her human spiritual limitations and connect with these animals on their higher level. It’s a special gift.
Unfortunately, there are several birds at REGI who would not survive in the wild and therefore will live out their years at the facility. There is no place better for them to be. The staff loves them and cares for them as if they were family, in which they really are to them. One of those birds is Qush, a female bald eagle who is now over 50 years old that Marge rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Marge and Cush have a special connection, it’s easy to see when they interact.
Our group did a ton of work at REGI, but I don’t think that any of us would consider anything that we did while we were there as work. We were down to the final minutes in order to complete the passerine enclosure. Several of us stayed late and arrived early in order to make sure that the project was completed before we left. No one needed to be convinced to put in a little extra time, we just did what needed to be done. At 4:30 PM on Friday afternoon, about 90 minutes after we were supposed to finished, the final nail being driven into the passerine enclosure screening was met with applause from the entire group.
There is a special feeling that you get when you’re doing work that matters. Even more so when you’re helping another helper. Often times helpers have problems asking for help. I think that is why Marge was so incredibly grateful to have this group show up and dive into what needed to get done. Sometimes those who give so much of themselves need to receive as well. It helps them fill their cup again, so that they can continue to pay it forward in the future.
As much as I have written about this experience and the people what we have met through it, I really cannot properly articulate what it has done for my soul. I can’t speak for Sandy, but I think that she would agree with me. Yes, we gave this past week, but in the end, it was our souls that ended up receiving as well.
The only thing that I can say is that we were blessed beyond expression to be able to be a small part of this wonderful group of people who did this work. Every single one of them has left a mark on our souls that will last for the rest of our lives.
There is a sign on the property, a quote in memory of Don Gibson, Marge’s late husband that reads, “All good things are wild and free.” It is meant for the birds that they’re caring for to get back into the wild, but it also very relatable to the life of a full-time RVer.
This was definitely an experience for all of us that was for the birds.
…and Phil, I think that our moms just bumped into to each other up in heaven and said, “Did you see what our boys helped with this week?”