Spring 2011: “Your Unique Gifts” College Winner Tim Hefflinger

Read Tim's essay on how he learned to voice his concerns.

Tim Hefflinger, a student in Professor Courtney Baines’s Sustainable Development course at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article, “Blessings Revealed” by Puanani Burgess. He is our university winner for the Spring 2011 writing competition.

Writing prompt: What is your gift? How do you share it?

Realizing My Gift


I accrued hundreds of community service hours before the age of 12 as a “Junior Naturalist” at Cattus Island County Park in New Jersey. My work was typically something like chopping frozen minnows into bite-sized pieces for the reptiles, or hunting for toads to feed to the snakes, or constructing boardwalks. I grew to love this kind of work.

Another option for duties was to stay in the visitor center and assist with educational programming. This kind of work always tugged at me and appealed in a way that was wholly different from feeding the tortoises—but I never felt qualified to speak about any of the animals in front of a group. Every time I showed up for my shift, my supervisor—a real naturalist named Chris, and perhaps the only bearded man I had ever seen in New Jersey—would ask me to help with programming. I would decline every time.

Eventually, I grew tired of the prep work and started feeling the need to stretch my legs. One day I boldly accepted the challenge of talking about a beautiful hognose snake to a small group of people outside of the visitor center. I had dealt with this species for a few years, and I was familiar with the particular individual I was holding. I remember hopping up on a bench with hognose snake in hand, turning to face the group—and having absolutely nothing to say about the hognose snake. The truth is, though I knew what this snake ate and that it was male, I didn’t know any other scientific information. I didn’t know its Latin name, its breeding habits, what other snakes it was related to, or how it survived in the wild. I couldn’t share anything interesting about the stunning creature I was holding. I stood there dumbly for a few moments before blurting out the name of the snake and that it was male. I was mortified. I never volunteered to present animals at Cattus Island ever again.

For many years, the only lesson I took from that experience was “Don’t speak in public.” I spent much of my childhood as a shy, quiet, reader-of-books who didn’t share much of what he knew with anyone else. Growing up and moving around a lot, I began to realize that not only was this introvertness often interpreted as aloofness, rudeness, or inattention, but I was also unhappy and not well-adjusted. My unwillingness to speak up contrasted sharply with my active mind; I was always thinking, but opened up very little to others.

My break from that demeanor took the strange form of joining Model UN and Forensics (speech and debate) teams when I entered high school. For an introverted person, this was a big step, and—much to my surprise—I was good at them. Something about the structure of those settings freed my ego from fearing embarrassment. Presenting a position paper in front of hundreds of people as pretend a delegate of the Russian Federation was not nearly as scary as asking a pretty girl to Homecoming.

As in the story, “Blessings Revealed,” told by Punani Burgess, these experiences have led to the gradual realization of my gift.  The lesson that I have since learned from my failed presentation at the county park is not to avoid speaking, but to acknowledge that what I know and care about has value. I know that I must research issues that are important to me, I must learn all I can about injustices and abuses, and I must allow myself to feel passion. Though I didn’t know its Latin name or its breeding habits, I could have held up the hognose snake that day and said that while they were reasonably plentiful in central New Jersey, the species and its prey were rapidly losing habitat everywhere they were found. Fowler’s Toads—its main prey in the area—were becoming scarcer due to the heavy use of off-road vehicles and agrichemicals.  I could have made these points, but froze up because I was uncertain that it was okay to voice my concerns about the snake. I thought I was supposed to recite the basic facts.

I now believe that it is my calling to talk and write about what impassions me. I must seek out those who feel the pain of injustice. I must work to understand their situation. And I must hold these people (and creatures) out to the world and say in no uncertain terms—voice shaking—that it is our duty as human beings and neighbors to take care of them. Be they Fowler’s Toads threatened with death-by-pesticide, the people poisoned by lead near one of the 12 Superfund sites in Ocean County, NJ, or a single mother who now faces the inability to keep herself and her children warm throughout the winter because the government has cut her heating bill assistance. I will find them and tell their stories. I am called to be a dot-connector and a whistle-blower. And I will find my voice in this calling.

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