Clear Trails and Grow Vegetables
Westchester Land Trust
Mike Surdej is perfect for the Volunteer Spotlight, but for more than just that massive smile.
Photograph by Stefan Radtke
If you’re passionate about preserving, caring for and cultivating natural resources, consider volunteering for the Bedford Hills-based Westchester Land Trust. The Land Trust, founded in 1988 by local residents concerned about rapid suburban development, offers nature lovers many ways to help.
One of the largest volunteer programs is a working farm that provides produce to local food pantries and soup kitchens. The half-acre Sugar Hill Farm, owned by the Land Trust, is one of Food Bank for Westchester’s five Food Growing Program sites. Three to 20 people show up at the farm on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month between April and October. “It’s great for people who are new volunteers,” says Assistant Development Director Grace Buck. “People can come for an hour or for all four hours.”
Volunteers plant seeds in the spring, then assist in weeding and harvesting crops throughout the summer and fall. Last year, the farm harvested almost 1,700 pounds of vegetables — or 16,866 individual servings at pantries and soup kitchens.
But the opportunities aren’t limited to just would-be farmers. Buck says the organization has a “pretty robust stewardship team” that tends to preserves across the county by clearing trails after storms, removing invasive plants and even constructing new areas for visitors to explore. In addition, the organization uses between five and six office volunteers who help with clerical work and fundraising mailings, and more than 40 people who help out with the group’s annual fundraiser by assisting with signage, an auction, and other event needs. Longtime volunteer Mike Surdej says it’s great “to work alongside like-
minded people who are exceptionally nice and enjoy what they’re doing.”
Get Started: Contact Grace Buck at 914.234.6992 x23 or visit www.westchesterlandtrust.org/how-to-help/volunteer. There are no prerequisites, training, or time requirements.
Similar Ops: The Westchester Parks Foundation, member organizations of the Federated Conservationists of Westchester County.
Mike Surdej, 62, Lewisboro
Being outdoors always came naturally to Mike Surdej, so volunteering for the Westchester Land Trust seemed like the perfect fit. He became aware of the Land Trust when he saw a newspaper ad seeking outdoor volunteers, so he got in touch with staff.
“They immediately put me out into a preserve in the Kitchawan area,” Surdej recalls. “It was just after Hurricane Sandy, so there were a lot of downed trees and limbs. I helped clear trails so that people could walk on them again.”
Surdej, who is on medical retirement, has worked at preserves across the county, maintaining easements and required open space from developments. Growing up, Surdej lived with his family not too far from the New York Botanical Garden, and, he recalls, “As soon as I got a job as a teenager, I purchased a membership there.”
The Lewisboro resident enjoys the relationships he has formed with fellow Land Trust volunteers and staff.
“They’ve always been incredibly welcoming to me,” he says. Though Surdej “started out as the guy with the chainsaw,” he’s “talked to them about marketing and many other things.”