Scratching the itch when the volunteer bug bites

Woman with short brown hair and glasses wears dress and purple cardiganI caught the volunteer bug at a very young age (thanks, Mom!). As a kid, I got involved handing out heart-shaped suckers around Valentine’s day to raise money and awareness for the American Heart Association; tutoring younger elementary school students in our school’s English as a Second Language Program; and serving meals to hungry neighbors through our community’s soup kitchen.

As an adult, I continued on this path in my professional life. A large part of what drew me to engineering was the humanitarian aspect, the capacity to change human life for the better. As professional civil engineers, our mission is to improve the natural and built environment—increasing access to clean water, community connections, and safe structures. As a civil engineer, I feel a real sense of responsibility for our direct impact on the human race. I strive to incorporate this sense of responsibility into my work every day. Volunteering through various industry organizations allows me to do this.

My volunteerism is divided into a few buckets: promoting STEM and diversity in our profession, providing humanitarian benefits, and positively impacting our built and natural environment.

STEM and Diversity

Diversity in our profession results in improved holistic solutions. For many years, my team at Mead & Hunt has sponsored high school interns through the Apprenticeship in Science and Engineering program. This exposes the younger generation to the many facets of engineering as a potential career choice. I also strive to encourage involvement in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields. Last year a group of us from Mead & Hunt volunteered at a STEM Like a Girl Event. This organization focuses on engaging grade school-aged children, primarily young girls, in activities related to the various STEM fields. They partner with a parent or guardian to reinforce these teachings in the home.

4 woman wearing hair nets and gloves stand over bin of pears
Volunteering at the Oregon Food Bank

Humanitarian Benefits

When I first relocated to the Pacific Northwest, I got involved in the local chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). I joined many of their volunteer events at the Oregon Food Bank (OFB), packaging bulk food for individual distribution. Eventually, I took over the role of volunteer coordinator for SWE. I recently participated in a Free Food Market shift, which brought me face-to-face with the recipients of the volunteer efforts at the OFB. It was so rewarding and I’m thankful to see a trend towards more food security.

I’ve also become a passionate donor at the American Red Cross. A few years back, I transitioned from whole blood to platelet donations. I can donate more frequently and I’m helping very targeted subgroups in need. Don’t be afraid of the needle. You too can make a difference!

Improving our Environment

I get recharged exploring our natural and built environment and find it really fulfilling making these places better for all to enjoy. Thankfully, there are so many opportunities to volunteer in these activities where I live. I’ve led and participated in numerous events to remove invasive plants, remove underutilized pavements, plant trees, and remove trash. I hope to leave this world a better place than when I arrived.

For me, getting involved in organizations and events like these is a great way to really see the human impact our work has. It can be easy for the lived experience of those affected by these issues to fall off the radar; volunteering gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation for our industry’s ability to enact real change in people’s lives. Each of these facets have one thing in common: they all serve to better our communities in some way. And at the end of the day, this is why I do what I do—and what I believe the purpose of engineering is: to leave the world better than it would have been otherwise.

Kari Nichols, PE

About the Author

If a raindrop falls on the project, Kari Nichols, P.E., gets involved to find a stormwater management solution. “I believe in dedication and follow-through,” she says. “Deciphering regulatory language and developing workable design solutions helps me connect with clients and colleagues.” Kari has a taste for adventure and a passion for sustainability, which she satisfies by exploring natural and urban environments.

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