Volunteer Composter

Insider Info

Mary Karish of Coppell, Texas, has earned the nickname "grass lady" because of her composting skills. She volunteers to salvage grass clippings that are headed for the landfill and gives them a new life by adding them to compost bins.

What is compost? Compost is said to be one of the most valuable resources for making yards and communities beautiful. And it's free! Leaves, grass and branches are some of the materials used to create compost. Compost is typically a mix of those decomposing plant materials and food waste. Compost is used to fertilize soil naturally.

Volunteer composting is an ideal way to help protect the environment. When volunteers compost, they divert ozone-damaging waste from landfills and create the benefits of natural, life-promoting soil in the process.

The average American tosses away 4.5 pounds of trash per day, adding to more than 236 million tons of garbage the U.S. accumulates annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of that amount, about 25 percent is made up nearly equally of food scraps and yard debris, the EPA states.

These are the materials that produce ozone-damaging gases in landfills. But volunteers can turn these environmental hazards into rich, life-supporting compost.

Finished compost looks dark and has a pleasant smell. It's produced when organic matter, such as garden, lawn and food, is broken down by bacteria and fungi. It's used in gardens, lawns, flower beds and other places throughout the community as a source of nutrients.

Volunteer composters can work in community gardens and outdoor centers. They can also volunteer to teach others how to compost in their home gardens. Letting others know about the benefits of composting is often a big part of being a composting volunteer.

As a volunteer composter, Karish takes pride in collecting grass clippings and leaves -- and enjoys participating in this volunteer work in her city.

Mary Karish and her husband John took the Master Composter Class offered by the City of Coppell. The class provides information on the theory and application of composting. It's held in the evenings for two consecutive nights, and all day on a Saturday.

The couple originally registered to learn more about gardening and to meet new people. "We figured a composting class might lead us to the secret art of successful gardening," Mary says. "We discovered that composters make great gardeners."

After the Karishes completed the class, they started composting as volunteers at Coppell Community Gardens. John found that composting gave him an opportunity to get outdoors, exercise and spend time with fellow compost volunteers.

"It also allows me to spend some fun time with my wife during the weekend, and it's a way to demonstrate my active and visible commitment to the gardens," John says.

As a student in an environmental technology program, Marion Wylie started volunteering at a compost education center.

"The center offers hands-on training, and an amazing volunteering environment," Wylie says. "There's definitely a sense of community among the volunteers and staff. That was something I was definitely looking for as well."

Wylie volunteers in a variety of roles at the center. At Friday afternoon work parties, she works in the organic gardens around the site, sifting compost, planting, mulching, weeding and harvesting. She also spends time in the office, selling compost supplies and doing data entry and other computer work.

As a volunteer, Wylie visits local schools, delivering compost education programs with the education coordinator. She also assists with outreach activities, participating in various community events.

Wylie gains many benefits as a volunteer composter, including a sense of community and the chance to give back. She is getting a first-hand education on organic gardening, composting and teaching others about the process.

By studying composting, the Karishes learned how to garden organically and earned composting certification hours. Composting is also a good way to learn about the benefits to eating healthier foods -- a skill people can use for the rest of their lives, John says.

The main duties of a volunteer composter include collecting grass clippings and leaves -- that's how Mary became known as the "grass lady."

"Some of the best conversations take place around compost turning, and some special friendships were created over compost turning," Mary says.

Although Mary loves connecting with people, she most enjoys the opportunity to help our environment. "The best part is that it teaches you to care," she says.

How to Get Involved

To learn about composting, the Karishes enrolled in a course provided by their city. Composting courses are offered through city governments, universities and other organizations.

John recommends that people take a composting class before volunteering. "It will allow you to provide more input to the process," he says.

"Our training program is geared for people of all ages or high school students volunteer on a drop-by basis on Friday afternoons," says Marika Smith. She is the volunteer and office manager at a composting center. Training at her center is offered three times a year. Volunteers have about 17 hours of classroom, practical and hands-on instruction. Following the training course, volunteers complete a 30-hour practicum involving the hands-on application of their newly acquired skills. An initial $100 deposit is required for the training, of which $85 is reimbursed after completing a 30-hour practicum.

Volunteers at the center also receive a Master Composter certificate after the practicum. The diversity of skills and training acquired through volunteer composting looks great on a resume, Wylie says. In addition, volunteers almost always gain connections in the environmental community.

"Just get out there and compost," Wylie says. "It's awesome, and you'll learn so much."

Mary recommends contacting people involved in community gardens and finding out if the gardens do composting.

Volunteers do not need to have completed the Master Composter certification. "We have had people who were not associated with the community garden show up, and they just came to turn for exercise, to learn new things, and have a way to connect to other people," she says.

"Another fun idea is to hold compost turning parties in your neighborhood," she adds.

To earn a Master Composter certification, students complete 20 hours of volunteer work related to composting, Mary says. Organizing presentations about composting, educating others at city events on the fate of grass clippings and the status of landfills, and helping a neighbor build a compost pile are all examples of eligible volunteering.

The end results of the training are worth it, say those involved.

"Don't give up. One bag of grass clippings salvaged from the landfills may not look like much, but the thousand mile journey starts with the first step," Mary says. "Can you imagine the distance traveled of so many first steps?"


The Association of Compost Producers
Nonprofit association of public and private organizations dedicated to increasing composting in California.

Charity Guide: Compost to Reduce Landfills
Information on how to make a difference through composting (and other volunteer opportunities)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Composting
Discusses what composting is, what compost can be used for and related topics

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