Elder Force: Retired Volunteers Keep National Parks Humming
Retirees are volunteering at hundreds of nationally protected lands. They staff visitor centers, do maintenance, clean up debris and remind visitors to keep food items secure from wildlife. Last year, volunteers outnumbered National Park Service staff about 20 to one, expanding the financially strapped agency’s ability to serve hundreds of millions of visitors.
Nearly a third of them are 54 and up, contributing to the 7.9 million service hours worked in 2015 by all 400,000 volunteers. Volunteer opportunities also exist at National Wildlife Refuge sites, fish hatcheries and endangered species field offices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Sallie Gentry, volunteer coordinator for the Southeast Region, based in Atlanta, notes that Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has a dozen designated spots for motor homes in its Volunteer Village. She says most volunteers are local retired residents whose working hours vary while RV volunteers commit to 20 hours a week for at least three months. In return, they get free hookups for electricity, sewage, propane and water. “They have skills they want to contribute, but are also looking for a social outlet,” notes Gentry. Cookouts and potlucks are common.
She also cites the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, an important migratory stop especially for songbirds, as a place with great appeal. “We supply uniforms, training, tools and orientations,” says Gentry. “It’s a mutually beneficial investment.” She suggests that individuals apply for specific sites at least a year in advance.
Megan Wandag, volunteer coordinator for the USFWS Midwest Region, based in Minneapolis, cites the popular Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, in Bloomington, and the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, near Des Moines, as “oases near urban areas.”
USFWS Southwest Region volunteer coordinator Juli Niemann highlights the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, in central New Mexico, that has 18 recreation vehicle spots and an average occupancy duration of five months. “It’s a prime wintering place for sandhill cranes.”
Volunteer.gov updates site details and contact information at federal facilities nationwide.
This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Natural Awakenings.