Grif Johnson ’72 retired from a 33-year career in the practice of law in January 2010. After attending a Princeton AlumniCorps Board meeting and subsequent local Community Volunteers events, Grif was connected to Wilderness Leadership and Learning (WILL) in Washington, DC. He recently spoke with us about his Community Volunteers experience.
Q: How did you hear about Wilderness Leadership and Learning (WILL)?
In the fall of 2010, I received an e-mail from the newly renamed Princeton AlumniCorps, introducing the Community Volunteers program. By then I was retired – a major milestone for me – and I was looking for ways to get involved with the community. On its face, the Community Volunteers program sounded interesting, so I went to a panel here in Washington, DC. The panel laid out the concept of Community Volunteers, which was very much in line with my personal interest in finding a place to spend my time that would be rewarding to me, and that I thought would be useful. The next session held in DC was a “speed dating” event where alumni interested in Community Volunteers could meet with representatives from nonprofits who were looking for volunteers. I was unable to attend that session, but a staff member followed up with information about a number of nonprofits I might be interested in. That is how I first heard about WILL, and the more I read and learned, the more I thought “this is something that really interests me.”
Q: Can you tell us about WILL?
The organization was founded 7 years ago by a then trial attorney here in DC, Steve Abraham, who had a life-changing experience while he was hiking out west. He had a moment where he realized that a lot of kids in inner cities never have the opportunity to experience nature in this way. He wanted to find a way to marry the enormous potential of underprivileged young people with the opportunity to literally expand their vision, to stand on top of a mountain and look 360 degrees around and say, “Wow, I never knew there was such a thing.” That is how WILL was born.
The program works with 9th, 10th and 11th graders in several of DC’s public schools. Steve works with guidance counselors and other staff in these schools to identify promising young students, who, for want of resources, are not able to enjoy opportunities to be outdoors, learn about the world, and challenge themselves in unfamiliar environments.
We start with a class of between 20 and 30 students each fall. We take the young people out in rural Virginia, where a professional outdoor training organization takes them through an exercise building a rope bridge and other things, which they use to accomplish tasks as a team that they would not be able to accomplish on their own. It teaches the kids to be careful, to be trusting, and to work in a team. Through the fall, we take the young people on trips – out on the Anacostia River and to the Chesapeake Bay, for example – where they interact with and learn about the ecosystem and the stresses it suffers. For the 11th graders, we bring in college counselors from local universities so these students, whose families do not historically have a record of attending college, can learn about the importance of college and the process of applying. We also take kids on local field trips to cultural and national institutions in DC. The whole process culminates in the summer, at the end of the academic year. We break the youth into two smaller groups and take them out for a week on the Appalachian Trail, in conjunction with the Outward Bound program.
It’s really remarkable what these young adults are capable of doing. My wife and I joined a scavenger hunt that WILL organized last May. Students were divided into groups of four, and each group was given a series of obscure questions that could only be answered by visiting specific locations on the National Mall. For example, one of the questions was: “How many columns are in the Lincoln Memorial, and what does each one represent?” Watching these young people tackle the task as a group, watching how they divide responsibilities and marshal their collective skills, was just remarkable. These young people are so inspirational to be with. It’s been a great, great experience for me to be on the board of WILL. I am so happy that I found them through the auspices of the Community Volunteers program.
Q: What is your involvement with the organization? How do you use your legal expertise?
Because WILL is currently a very small organization, as a board member, you have a choice of going to the quarterly meetings and making that the extent of your involvement, or you can also get involved in the programmatic activities. I would say that involvement in the programmatic functions of the organization and in more traditional board member service have both been deeply rewarding aspects that I have enjoyed spending time on.
Of course my legal training is always there, and there are times in the discussion at the board level where my knowledge of the law has been particularly helpful, but what I was really looking for was a different rhythm, a different environment. I wanted to walk at the pace and in the company of people who are involved in the life all around us. I am not in any way trying to suggest that I was running away from my law career, or that I needed a mental antidote, I was just really interested in spending my time in a different kind of setting while using the skills I have. I’ve found that my work with WILL has been especially rewarding because of the people involved, particularly the students.
Q: What do you think is most important for people, especially recent retirees, to think about as they consider Community Volunteers and the nonprofit sector?
You want to do something that you will look forward to doing, which interests you and motivates you. For me it was really the relationships that I have been able to develop at WILL. I did a fair amount of diligence before I offered to become a board member. I would say that’s a very important aspect. A person in my position potentially has a lot to offer from the point of view of experience, wisdom and skills that you accumulate – it’s worth something, and you don’t want to waste it. I think it’s very important that anybody contemplating retirement or volunteering do a great deal of preparation and investigation to learn about the organization and exactly what you would be doing. For me, getting involved with WILL has really been an ongoing commitment rather than something I do once every 2 or 3 months. Once you get involved, it really takes you over and you get so passionate that you spend your days and nights thinking about it, even between board meetings.
“Once you get involved, it really takes you over and you get so passionate that you spend your days and nights thinking about it, even between board meetings.” – Grif Johnson ’72