August 31, 2018. By Olga Okaty:

As part of our Year of Giving charitable initiative, I had the pleasure of joining a collaboration between two fantastic organizations, the Highland Street Foundation and The Trustees of Reservations, and volunteering at their Free Fun Fridays community event.  The event was held at the Old Manse, a beautiful 18th century manse and estate in Concord, MA renowned for its historical and literary associations.

Sponsored by the Highland Street Foundation, whose mission is to “provide access and opportunities in education, housing, mentorship, health care, environment, and the arts” to children and families in Massachusetts and California, Free Fun Fridays is a weekly summer program offering free admission to many cultural venues in Massachusetts that might not otherwise be affordable for many in our community.  The range of cultural attractions offered is vast, including museums, public gardens, historic homes, concerts, theater performances, dance festivals, and more.  All in the community are welcome to attend and spend the summer months enjoying all 100 events and places the Highland Street Foundation makes available.

The Trustees of Reservations, a community of over 100,000 members whose mission is to “preserve, for public use and enjoyment, properties of exceptional scenic, historic, and ecological value in Massachusetts”, manages many of the special places accessible through the Free Fun Fridays program, along with an enormous portfolio of unique natural and cultural treasures throughout all of Massachusetts.  These include 46,000+ acres protected, 25,000+ acres open to the public, 270+ miles of trails, 116+ places, 10 historic homes, 8 beautiful gardens, 7 farms, and 2 lighthouses.  A passionate community of friends and neighbors “who love the outdoors, love the distinctive charms of New England, and believe in celebrating and protecting them, for everyone, forever”, the Trustees manage and care for many of the most cherished and beloved sites in Massachusetts.

With its rich history and lush grounds, the Old Manse offered over 500 visitors many engaging opportunities to learn, explore, and find inspiration throughout the gorgeous summer day.  Once home to writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and frequently visited (and gardened!) by essayist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, the Manse boasts a unique literary history.  Knowledgeable staff interpreters welcomed visitors with guided tours of the house, offering many insightful stories and entertaining anecdotes about the Manse.  Outside, staff and volunteers invited visitors to explore nine acres of the Manse’s verdant rolling fields, flourishing apple orchard, heirloom vegetable garden (a recreation of one originally planted by Thoreau), and serene trails along the banks of the Concord River.  Visitors were also delighted to discover and participate in several art and nature inspired activities, including window writing (inspired by the poems Hawthorne and his wife, the painter Sophia Hawthorne, etched to each other on the Manse’s window panes), and nature reflections in the orchard, where visitors and volunteers created impromptu poetry and artwork inspired by their visit and interactions with the majestic landscape.

All throughout the day, the spirit of community and sense of collective appreciation were a refreshing reminder of the power of serendipitous encounters – with nature, with our neighbors, with strangers who happen to cross our path.  We often think of volunteering as helping others, but inevitably we return from these experiences so much richer ourselves, inspired by the very personal connections that volunteering makes possible.  In this heyday of social media, which can often present itself as a surrogate for real connection, there is still no substitute for human interaction and the sense of humanity and friendship that can be restored when a community joins together for a good cause.