Best Time I’ve Had Shoveling Poop!

29 Dec

No really, it was awesome! For this round of volunteering, I was with the Animal Department at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. It took a little while to get going, but once I was in it was awesome. Where else can you see a donkey roll in the dirt, watch potbelly pigs solve problems and work with the most passionate people around?

My days started off bright and early. While the traffic was usually snarled in the morning, the drive home at noon was mercifully traffic-free.

Kristen, the Lead Keeper and Volunteer Coordinator, met me out front with a cheery face. Coffee-less, I was still working on waking up. On my first day there were two possums cruising around, but I was only able to catch a butt before it vanished. Kristen introduced me to Jill, who I spent most of my time with, and Kent, the surly 14-year vet, and we were off to the farmyard.

Check out the video, to see some things I learned while I was there.

I loved the work, but I’m also a bit of a weirdo that loves manual labor. I volunteered a few more times and even though one was in the rain, they were all amazing experiences. There was a huge sense of accomplishment and importance when you contribute to one of the animal’s well being by giving them a clean stall to call home. If you have any reservations about the work let me say this, it’s not hard, but it’s not easy either. There are always other people with you (staffers and other volunteers) so there’s a helping hand anytime you need it. I highly recommend it for the person who’s looking for a more hands-on volunteer experience.

Interview with Jill and Kristen

First thing I learned about Jill and Kristen is they both got into the work for the love of animals. Kristen started off as a volunteer and eight year later is now the Lead Keeper for the Animal Department. Jill took what I’d guess is a non-traditional path to the Animal Department. After completing law enforcement training, she decided to take her career in a different direction and has been a Keeper for the past five years.

Many hats, one person. That’s Kristen’s favorite part about the job “The variety of things we get to do in a day. Some days you’re working in the farmyard. Some days you’re inside working with the owls and possums.” She goes on to say “You get a little landscape technician, educator, and animal keeper. You get a little bit of everything each week.” For Jill, her favorite part comes down to the animals, “…being able to work with the animals so closely.”

So do they have a favorite animal? This was akin to asking Kristen to pick a favorite son or daughter. She says, “I have my favorites on specific days, but it’s impossible to pick (an overall) favorite.” Jill also had a hard time picking just one favorite animal, but she did have some she liked working with. “Probably the birds and pigs. We have raptors, owls and hawks, not many people can see them up close and I’m one of the ones that get to take them out on programs to show people (these birds). The pigs are like big dogs. They’re easy to train and have a lot of personality.”

So what about tough days? They both mentioned the weather, because the animals need to be taken care of whether it’s 100 degrees or snowing. I got a little taste of this on my first day when it rained on us pretty much nonstop. Jill added a little more about the tougher parts of the job, one that I’m sure hits home for every Keeper and animal lover. “Losing an animal, if an animal has to be put down, is probably one of the hardest parts of the job. When I first started I’d cry a lot when one of the animals died, it’s gotten a little bit easier five years later.”

They both want the public to know that it’s a cool job, “getting to hold and bottle feed a bear cub…” from Kristen. But, it’s not an easy job; “We work hard to keep over 100 animals healthy and enriched.” After volunteering with the Animal Department I can say amen to that!

Getting involved

They love to see volunteers’ eager faces every day of the week. The main volunteer time is from 8 am – 12 pm. The best way get started is to contact Kristen about volunteer opportunities. You can reach her at 919-220-5429 x335 or Kristen.Pormann at

If you’re looking for other ways to help, you can drop off newspapers and toilet paper rolls (check out Lesson #2 in the video for what they do with enrichment pieces). Also, they’ve accepted pumpkins after Halloween and Christmas trees after the holidays. If you’re interested in any of these, please contact Kristen first to make sure they have a need before you drop the supplies off.

Finally, I’m sure the museum would love your financial help if you’re able to give. There are several programs on the Support Page for just about any interest. Once again, I highly encourage you to get involved and support this wonderful Durham institution. s


Green Plus Success Stories

10 Nov

As promised, here are some success stories Sarah Kate and Kirsten shared with me.


This is one of Sara Kate’s favorite stories. Is it possible to have accounting firm that cares about sustainability as much as the bottom line? It’s no fairytale. “It all started because of an employee. It changed not only some of their practices, but also their culture. It opened their eyes a bit to the possibilities that exist. I love how the program was a change-agent at HPG”

The Taylor Companies

Sara Kate and Kirsten both really liked this example, because it shows that sustainability is for just about everyone. Jeff, the CEO of The Taylor Companies, is an example of an everyman business owner. “He was someone who what skeptical of sustainability as perhaps being a little ‘too hippy.’ These are union guys after all. Well, he took at look at the sustainability programs with an analytical eye and found that it saved him a lot of money in reducing waste. So much, in fact, it pays for two people’s salaries at his company. They’re able to fit all of their waste into a 5’ x 8’ dumpster for the month–which is incredible for their business. Now, he’s a huge evangelist of sustainability, everyone he meets hears about how they should be focusing on sustainability.”

Chapel Hill Tire Car Care Center

By far, this was Kirsten’s favorite story. It gave her chills just telling it. Chapel Hill Tire Car Care Center has been a family-owned business in businesss for over 50 years. It would have been very easy to keep doing what’s always been done. But Mark Pons had a different vision.

“After renovating their 104-year-old building they have dual-flush toilets, water conservation and solar panels. His business has grown so much that he has been able to hire 5 new employees.”

But he didn’t stop there. “He looked at the people section of the Green Plus diagnostic. One of the questions is ‘Do you give your employees two conquerent days off?’ At that time he kept his business open on Saturday,” as most car care business do. “He wasn’t sure how much it was going to cost, but he decided to try closing shop on Saturdays so employees could spend that time with their families. What happened is they didn’t lose any revenue. People just brought their cars in during the week. Word got out that the shop was closed on the weekend and that Marc actually cared about the employees. In the end he’s been able to attract the most qualified canidates for job openings. “

More Companies and How You Can Get Involved

That’s just three stories. There are 110 other companies, each with their own successes, in the Green Plus Directory. I encourage you to reward these businesses that have committed to sustainability and also refer companies to the program.

Getting Involved

“We would love and encourage your financial donations. We could use some help funding our marketing efforts and technology to reach even more businesses.

Also, we love to see champions in the public. If you’re passionate about this program, we’d love to hear from you. We’d love for self-motivated people to help us get the message out.”

Here’s how you can contact them:




Green Plus: Sustainability for All

9 Nov

Green Plus is a bit of a hidden gem in the Durham community. Tucked back on Gilbert Street is one of the most innovative sustainability programs in the area, if not the country.

Sure, huge corporations like Walmart and Target grab the headlines for their efforts to be green, but just as it’s the small and medium-sized businesses that drive the economy; they’re also the ones that need to lead the charge for a cleaner tomorrow.

The small, tight-knit team of Sarah Kate Fishback, Kirsten Hausman, and Chris Carmody, the director, help business owners find the sustainability practices that keep them competitive while doing some good. As Sarah Kate and Kirsten put it, their goal is “Democratizing sustainability. To help small businesses get the information they need to make sustainable changes.”

Sarah Kate oversees the operations of the Green Plus program. She covers everything from customer service to technology to working with the student interns. Chances are if you’ve called or emailed Green Plus, you’ve talked Sarah Kate.

Kirsten’s the Director of Communications and Client Services for the program. She makes sure the tools are available for businesses to use and works with Chambers of Commerce to recruit more companies to the program.  In addition she helps with events and works to keep up with Green Plus members to check in on their progress.

Their Commitment to Sustainability Runs Deep

The issue of sustainability runs deep in K

risten’s family. “I got into sustainability because I grew up overseas, in Africa. In Niger is where it started to happen.  My mom worked with Peace Corps volunteers and with the Agency for International Development and basically her focus was sustainable development. I moved from the states at the age of 8 or 9 to go to a place where clean water is an issue for a lot of people. It blew my mind!” She brought those profound experiences back with her and that has powered her passion ever since.

Sara Kate’s history started in college in Business School where she saw business separating itself from the community and environment. After college she worked at Google, where she experienced a very different model. “People were passionate about not only the business, but also about sustainable practices. Café 150 was one of my favorite examples; all of the food in the café was from within 150 miles of the campus. From planting a garden on campus to installing solar panels to encouraging volunteerism it was just a different way of thinking about business.  I think we’re missing out by looking at business so narrowly; we could have happier employees, healthier environments, and more just environments.”

To Sara Kate and Kirsten the stories are the most rewarding part of the job. It’s the stories that show how Green Plus brings real change to businesses.  They had some great stories about small businesses that have gone through the program with unbelievable results. I want to do those stories justice, so they’ll go in their own post.

This is the $100 question I ask to every non-profit I interview. “What would a gift of $100 mean to the organization?”

Kirsten and Sarah Kate: “It’ll help us do more outreach and events so we can spread the word about Green Plus.”

How You Can Get Involved

“We would love and encourage your financial donations. We could use some help funding our marketing efforts and technology to reach even more businesses.

Also, we love to see champions in the public. If you’re passionate about this program, we’d love to hear from you. We’d love for self-motivated people to help us get the message out.”

Here’s how you can contact them:




Interview (continued) with Michelle Gonzales: A Dedicated Life

5 Oct

Now, to continue my interview with Michelle from Seesaw. We talk about her favorite part of the job, the hard times, and what she needs most for Seesaw. Alright, let’s get into Part 2.


There have been some amazing success stories from the Seesaw program like, “The foster child that at only 13 years old is doing really well. He has his own micro-enterprise with his first clients. Then there’s the teen that now has a sense of hope when they go back to the shelter. I could tell you one about every child that’s stepped through the door.”

It’s at this point that I looked around her office, during the interview, with fresh eyes. What once seemed to be a cramped office with bit too much clutter now appeared to be more like a shadowbox filled with warm memories.

There are some challenging parts of the job, too. “In the beginning of the year we do recruitment and the stories I hear behind closed doors, they’re things I need to know……it’s hard. It’s offered up by parents, or something that a DSS worker wants me to know about that special child, but sometimes after they leave I have to go in a corner…” There’s a pause and we move on to another subject.

Then we get to the elephant in the room. Money. The annual operating budget is $70,000. That covers every thing. Through Michelle’s, program coordinator, and volunteers’ efforts they are able to get products and service donations worth an additional $70,000. Most non-profits will tell you that there’s never enough. Of course they’re right, but I can’t help but feel like Michelle is on another level. There have been times, too many times, where she’s gone without a paycheck so that Seesaw can remain afloat. Terms get renegotiated—60 days for repayment becomes 90.

Let me stop here. I want to make one thing clear. I’m only describing the situation as it is. They are doing good work with what they have at Seesaw. They don’t need your sympathy, but I’m sure Michelle would love your help. “You can donate through our secure service, Network for Good, you can also mail-in a donation to Seesaw at P.O. Box 3456, Durham, NC  27701. Or, if you want to come in and drop a donation we’d love to have you, we’ll do coffee and chat.”

Another way to get involved is to spread the word. “Don’t have the money to spare? We understand. Too busy? We understand that too. We’ll still love you. You never know which person you talk to might be that angel to Seesaw.” Sometimes just being there makes all the difference. “Come by, see our classes. It shows the kids that the community cares about what’s going on here. Tuesday—Thursday 3-6 p.m. come by.”

Her only wish? That she could see more kids. They have the space; they could easily double the amount of teens in the program. It’s the money again. Using more space means paying more for her retail rent and for supplies. Also with some volunteer and monetary help she would love to open a vintage boutique in downtown Durham where Seesaw can help students get a retail education while providing a source of income.

This is the $100 question I ask to every non-profit I interview. “What would a gift of $100 mean to the organization?”

Given Michelle’s reaction, there’s not much $100 can’t do at Seesaw.  “Let’s see. $100 will pay for the phone bill for a month.” The office phone is her lifeline to parents, guardians and caseworkers to see how their son or daughter is doing. “$100 gift pays for the toolkits for four teens. A hundred dollar gift could go to a box of t-shirts that turns into a micro-enterprise for a child. A hundred dollar gift could add 5-10 books to our design library. A hundred dollars goes a long ways.”


A huge thanks goes out to Michelle for sitting down with me for an honest, wonderful interview.

Interview with Michelle Gonzales: A Dedicated Life

4 Oct

I sat down with Michelle Gonzales from Seesaw Studio for a quick interview. Well, it turned into a two-part writeup. What can I say? We chatted about the program, successes, hopes, Michelle’s past, and why she’s driven to help teens realize their success. Let’s get into Part 1.

Walking into Seesaw Studio you get a sense this is a special place. You can feel the hopes and dreams of past students. Each workstation, scarred and marked up, tells a story of the budding teens who’ve become successful young adults under the program. Seesaw is a free after school studio that teaches teens from all walks of life the design and entrepreneurial skills they need to create success for themselves and their families.

To put it simply, in Michelle’s words, “…is to provide teens with the tools for future success.” She goes on to say, “Not everyone of them will become a designer. Some may become vets, doctors, or chemists, as some have over the last eleven years. What we give them are the basics—how to talk to people, how to think through a problem, how to produce, and how to think beyond their six blocks.” Pride and passion are flashing in her eyes now, “If they get nothing else out of it, then I’ve done my job.”

From the first moment you meet Michelle, it’s apparent that she gives everything to the kids who walk through the door at Seesaw. She’s one of the good people you read about—the ones who are changing lives in their communities

Before coming to Seesaw, Michelle worked all around the “non-profit mafia.” She’s been an AIDS activist, worked in AmeriCorps, and started the DIG (Durham Inner-city Gardeners) program at SEEDS.

Executive director at Seesaw for the past 3 years, Michelle has increased the enrollment from 2 when she started in 2007 (dark days for Seesaw) to around 30 today. For her, Seesaw is a way to give what wasn’t available to her.  “Every time I come here I feel so privileged to be able to offer this up.”

It becomes apparent later in the interview why working with teens is so important to her. “My mother died of AIDS and I took care of her during my teenage years. I guess that’s why a lot of my work has focused on teens, because I didn’t get to be one.” There’s a pause here as we both reflect on her introspection. Then she lightly adds, “Some people say I’m still trying to be one.” Laughter cuts through the pause and we continue.

Two moments where touchstones in the interview. One was talking about her past and the other was the pride and sheer joy in her eyes when talking about kids graduating from the program. “What’s the best part about the job,” I asked? She just lit up. “The beginning…and the end. There’s just so much hope and potential on their faces when they walk through the door for the first time. And also the end. To see them walk out a different person – confident and ready to take on the world.” It became obvious that those two emotions came from the same place in her heart.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of the interview where we dive into the programs, successes and what Michelle needs most at Seesaw Studio.

“Major” Art Flash Mob

19 Sep

To kick off this new year of art and design at Seesaw Studio, we created an art flash mob with the teen students. They set up their workspaces all around “Major” the bronze bull statue in downtown Durham. Some easels hit the ground thanks to a windy day, but the kids worked through the problem and ended up with some amazing art for their first week of the program.

Check out the video and pics.

Sneak Peek: Go Green Plus

6 Sep

An auto oil change business that cares about the environment? You better believe it. Accountants with an eye on the sustainability bottom line? It’s true.

Since 2007 Go Green Plus has helped more than 100 small businesses, including some you might not expect, integrate sustainable practices. Small businesses, long the workhorse of the U.S. economy, now have access to programs that not only make sense for the eco-conscious, but also make business sense. Companies that have completed the course have found their businesses more competitive, employees happier and their practices sustainable.

You can read more about Go Green Plus at their site and don’t forget to check out the list of companies who have completed the program.