“You can take the person out of her hometown, but you can never take the ‘hometown’ out of the person.” When I had the good fortune to move to London from the US in the summer of 2012, I thought no other saying was more fitting. Although I had visited London before and found it to be one of my all-time favourite places to be, I had no idea how I would ever fit in as a resident. At the same time, I was thrilled with the prospect of just taking the plunge and doing my best to seize the advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
One thing I hoped to do was volunteer and do something different from the work I had been doing back home. Like many, I have tried to do my small bit for the environment and I‘ve always loved being outdoors. For these reasons I was soon drawn to the Thames21 website. Its welcoming and inclusive tone sealed the deal: “All you need to do is turn up ready to get stuck in!” it said. What could be better? Well, as it turns out, aside from getting hopelessly lost on the way to my first event on the River Lea; having one of the canoes have to turn around and fetch me when I arrived; and letting out an embarrassingly loud shriek when a squirrel caught in the river ran up my paddle and flopped into the canoe at my feet, it was great! The work was satisfying and fun, and Thames21 staff and other volunteers there could not have been nicer. I thoroughly enjoyed getting “stuck in” at several events thereafter and met many wonderful people along the way.
The opportunity to take the “Leading a Waterway Clean Up” training was a logical next-step for me, as I was eager to learn more about some of the environmental issues affecting waterways. Not only did I learn about these issues and more, but I was actually inspired to carry out the title of the training and “lead my own waterway clean up.” This was a surprise to me, as I had only imagined being more of a bookish bystander, certainly enjoying the learning experience, but not necessarily doing anything with it. Again, the warmth and support of Thames21 staff was key to helping me feel like I could step out of my comfort zone. And the day arrived: I lead my first clean up event on the Regents Canal in May 2013.
Another saying I’m fond of is “there is power in numbers.” After completing the “Leading a Waterway Clean Up” training, I was put in touch with some other trainees who happened to live near me along the lower part of the Regents Canal. We were all keen to carry out the spirit of our training and continue leading clean-ups. We started taking turns organising events along our particular sections of the canal, inviting anyone interested and attending one another’s events. Over time, we’ve become a coalition of sorts. We try to organise events regularly, keep a mailing list of interested volunteers and have started to network with other groups such as residents’ associations, the Friends of Mile End Park and Moo Canoes (a canoe and kayak hire provider). Our longer-term goal is to restore some sections of the Regents with new plantings. Our short-term goal is to come up with a jazzy name for ourselves!
One thing often leads to another, I find. That seems to be true with my involvement with Thames21. I now find myself volunteering in the office a day a week to enable the training project to develop. I can safely say that volunteering with Thames21 has been one of the most important and enjoyable aspects of my time here in London.