I saw some folks bundled up for an Matterhorn trek walking on the Idlewild Trail and I had to ask them that silly question. I was stumbling down the rocky pitch with nothing more than a Tabernash Meadows Water and Sanitation District hoodie and my shelter mutt, “Chooch.”

The morning started out crisp and sunny but clouds were already threatening and it wasn’t even noon. I usually assume that we will have above average snowpack if we are getting snow by Halloween. There’s still a week to go before All Hallows Eve and it feels like midwinter. WTF! (Welcome to Fraser).

My “Escape Pod” RV needed some dings in the windshield fixed so I dropped the rig off at “All Cracked Up” in Tabernash. Admittedly, I selected this business strictly because of the name. In the Roaring Fork Valley I used to go to “Cracks and Racks,” another great name for a business.

While Dan was fixing the Escape Pod windshield I walked into the office of the Shining Stars Foundation in Tabernash looking for volunteer opportunities. I was restless. When I get restless I need to get involved with something good or my mood will plummet.

Shining Stars’ mission is to transform lives through year-round recreational and social programs for children and their families challenged with pediatric cancer or another life-threatening illness. Maybe in late November or December I will be running around Grand County collecting gifts for some very special kids.

Last week Pitkin County announced the recipients of the 2019 Pitkin County Cares and Greg Mace awards. Pitkin County is out in front when it comes to altruism and awareness. The Pitkin County Cares award is in its 19th year. The recipients are super volunteers who deserve this recognition. They set an example that the rest of us will probably never live up to.

If you look around you may be surprised to find how many nonprofits are working hard to fill in the holes left by our current society. There are many nonprofits up and down Grand Valley, most depending on the generosity of donors and the boots on the ground of a volunteer army.

I try to volunteer as much as I can, but I am often on the other side of the effort. Speaking on behalf of nonprofit leaders everywhere I can assure you that volunteers are the most important piece of the service puzzle. Nothing is more satisfying than leading a team of dedicated volunteers and nothing is sadder than looking behind you and finding no one there.

Keeping volunteers motivated and inspired is one of the most challenging jobs in the nonprofit world. Volunteers need to have a clear job description, just the right amount of supervision and a near steady stream of thanks and props. Even the most meaningful work becomes meaningless when a volunteer is not feeling appreciated. The same goes for donors. Donors will not come back if they don’t feel like their donation has been properly acknowledged.

Some organizations are really good at this and others find managing volunteers a challenging and daunting part of being in “business.” Psychology Today points out that “reciprocal altruism” describes those who give of themselves with the expectation that they will get something in return.

Happily, many organizations are good at acknowledging that someone’s effort has made a difference, and often that is the truth. It feels good to be thanked but the thanks are more esoteric and cosmic than you might think.

Giving unconditionally is the sign of a highly evolved person who may have already realized what some call the “helper’s high.”

Altruism is not unique to us highly evolved species. Dolphins are altruistic intrinsically. Neat.

Buddhists groom themselves to be unconditional altruists. They train their minds to accept and appreciate those who do not appreciate them. Being unappreciated provides a learning opportunity, teaching the value of patience and real generosity.

Altruism is not a secret religious mindset that is only understood and practiced by cloistered monks and nuns. It’s in the open now and studied by science. Stanford University has its Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. They get in there with functional magnetic imaging and other tools to see what’s really happening in the minds of unconditional givers.

It turns out that science is confirming what the Buddhists have quietly practiced for years. The 14th Dalai Lama, one of the founders of the center, could be called the compassionate tweeter in chief.

In 2009 he tweeted, “Altruism means that we should not be exclusively preoccupied with our own welfare. This does not imply that one should become a martyr!”

“I believe that despite the rapid advances made by civilization in this century, the most immediate cause of our present dilemma is our undue emphasis on material development alone. We have become so engrossed in its pursuit that, without even knowing it, we have neglected to foster the most basic human needs of love, kindness, cooperation and caring,” he writes.

It’s never too late to volunteer. Doing so unconditionally doesn’t always win you an award but the inner awards are apparently even more satisfying to those who practice.

Steve Skinner appreciates volunteers and hopes to become better at thanking volunteers and being an unconditional volunteer. Reach him at nigel@sopris.net.