Masters thesis shows why volunteers keep returning

Published in the December 7 – 20, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

Tina Peterson

Tina Peterson

Located a few miles east of Morgan Hill, Henry W. Coe State Park is a jewel of the South Bay where visitors enjoy seasonal events, abundant spring wildflowers, camping, hiking, backpacking, trail biking and equestrian activities. These pursuits are supported in large part by a dedicated group of people in the Coe Uniformed Volunteer Program. If you have visited the park, a UVP volunteer might have helped you have fun and save time by suggesting trails or advising on spring water availability in the back country.

Coe Park Uniformed Volunteers are a dedicated and happy group. What keeps them coming back for more work, week after week and year-to-year? This was the major question of my recent thesis research and I was privileged to dig for some answers in the first half of 2015 by conducting in-depth interviews with 18 current UVP members. These study participants told me about their experiences as volunteers, why they are loyal to the program and what they give and get out of volunteering at Coe. Interviews yielded 29 hours of data. All participants’ identities have been kept confidential throughout the study.

Three themes describing a strong loyalty to the Coe UVP emerged. These themes were almost universal among study participants, all of whom spoke eloquently about how they derived deep personal meaning through volunteering.

Theme one was “connecting with nature.” This happened through experiences in the backcountry, sharing the outdoors with visitors, learning about environmental processes and feeling like an effective steward of the land itself. Connecting with nature was the strongest motivating theme overall and importantly, was often described as the factor that had led participants to become volunteers. Here is what one volunteer said about camping during training in an area that had been recently burned by the Lick Fire: “There was no wildlife out there, no birds. But fire is a very important part of the natural cycle and [the trainers] were able to use that to teach us new volunteers about the importance of what fire does, of clearing out brush, burning off dead wood, providing different habitat as well as the nutrients that come from the ash.” Another talked about strong personal feelings: “There is a spiritual element to go into the park and going into the wilderness by yourself and finding that spiritual experience with the universe.”


Theme two centered around “working together.” Participants described how they valued learning from experienced volunteers while maintaining trails and working at the visitor center. They felt strong camaraderie in helping at events, informally mentoring new volunteers and working with Park Rangers. One participant summed up what many others said: “So I end up doing parking at (a park event). When the parking is done, I go help wash dishes. And the fun part is you get to work with people that are enjoying it as well as I am. It’s always fun to work with others and you become part of the team.”

Theme three was about “helping others,” especially park visitors. Volunteers connected with park visitors through a shared affinity for outdoor and backcountry recreation and a mutual sense of environmental stewardship. They told long stories about helping keep visitors safe, assisting in planning hikes and backcountry trips and the gratification felt when visitors came back to offer personal thanks for their help. As one participant said, “(visitors) who’ve never been to the park before have no idea (about how steep some of the trails are).”

This was my first ambitious research project and I was awestruck by how enthusiastically participants told their stories about volunteering and how consistently they found meaning in their work at Coe Park. As so many participants told me, “without the volunteers, there would be no park.” This kind of feeling has been shown by research to promote program loyalty and lead to robust volunteer service. If you are interested in volunteering at Coe Park, training sponsored by the Pine Ridge Association takes place in early fall.

Tina Peterson wrote her masters thesis on Henry W. Coe State Park volunteers through the Environmental Studies Department at San Jose State University. She wrote this column for Morgan Hill Life.