The Gift of Opportunity

Originally published in The Living Land column in The Hawk Eye on December 23, 2017.

Last month we hosted a grand opening for the donor recognition wall at our Big Hollow Recreation Area. On that wall are more than sixty names of individuals, businesses, and organizations whose major financial contributions made park improvements possible between 2003 and 2015.
Those 63 donors contributed nearly $1.2 million dollars to the park’s development. Their donations were matched with grants and other funding sources ultimately leading to the construction of the 178 acre lake complete with a beach, boat ramp, and fishing piers. The park now also includes an RV campground and off-grid cabin thanks to those donations.

I mention this because I have not yet finished my Christmas shopping. As I struggled with what to get for those on my list, my mind wandered to the $1.2 million worth of gifts the conservation department received over the years to build an outdoor recreation area. Then that brought to mind the question of why so many people would contribute so much to the development of a park. Even more confounding was the fact that many of the contributions came in the form of bequests and memorials from supporters that would never see the results.

So I picked up the phone. I knew a few of the names on that wall so I called them up and asked why they donated.

The response was almost unanimous. The words were different, but the sentiment was the same.
“I want kids today to have the same opportunities I had as a kid to experience the outdoors.”
Everyone I talked to said their motivation for giving was to ensure others had the opportunity to go outside. They all felt that the development of Big Hollow Recreation Area would create the kind of place that families could go and enjoy the outdoors. Together.

Interestingly, none of the donors mentioned themselves benefiting in any way from their contributions. No one said they wanted to invest in a lake where they would go fishing or a campground for them to camp in.  There was no “I” in any of the responses.

Many of the donors I spoke with mentioned fond memories of times spent outdoors when they were young. As my mind wandered back to my unfilled gift list, I couldn’t help but think of the movie “A Christmas Story” where (spoiler alert) Ralph’s dad gets him the coveted Red Ryder BB gun.
And why did Mr. Parker buy his son that BB gun, despite the risk of Ralphie shooting his eye out?
“I had one when I was eight years old,” he says in response to Mrs. Parker’s concerns.

In other words, he wanted his son to have the same opportunity that he had at that age.

I seem to notice a common theme here.

I suspect there are least two motivations at play here. The first is that giving feels good. Think about the feeling you get watching kids open presents on Christmas morning. There’s actually quite a bit of scientific research that shows strong positive brain responses associated with putting others’ interests ahead of our own. There’s a lot of satisfaction in giving gifts and contributing to worthy causes.

The second motivation I believe is at play here is that we’re naturally drawn to the outdoors. And instinctively, we know that we are. This concept was made clear to me earlier this year by my one year old daughter. Given the choice between playing inside with all her toys and games or playing outside in the dirt, she inevitably would choose the dirt. Sometimes even demanding it the way one-year-olds tend to do.

Having only existed for a year, I didn’t figure she had the experience or memory capacity to make the conscious decision as to whether she preferred to be indoors or out. So her attraction to the outdoors must be rooted in something deeper. More instinctive.

So I guess it makes sense that we want future generations to be able to play in the dirt and run the risk of shooting their eyes out. Because that’s what we did as kids. Being outdoors satisfied our inherent desire to connect with nature. The experiences we had outside taught us valuable life lessons (like how not to shoot our eyes out) and instilled in us a love of the outdoors that we carry with us as adults.

It was those experiences that inspired many in this community to contribute to a local park where families can now go to create their own experiences. Those are the kinds of gifts for which we can all be thankful.

Speaking of gifts, I wonder who on my list wants a BB gun.

Merry Christmas everyone!