In December and March, Heidi Wasson and Nancy Gilliom were in the Florida Keys, volunteering at parks about 400 miles south of their home in Jacksonville Beach.
This August, they’re volunteering on an entirely different island — Madeline, off the northern tip of Wisconsin in Lake Superior.
The retired couple are working as camp hosts at Big Bay State Park, the fifth park they’ve volunteered at this summer, doing everything from cleaning fire pits and campsites to organizing a storage closet in a nature center.
“We really take pride in the state parks and love giving back to the parks and playing in the parks,” Gilliom said.
Wisconsin’s state parks depend on that giving back now more than ever, as the COVID pandemic pushed more people outside and park staff levels haven't grown with the increased crowds.
In a normal year, about 6,000 volunteers contribute more than 130,000 hours of service to the park system — the equivalency of 63 full-time staff, according to Janet Hutchens, the friends groups and volunteer services coordinator for the DNR.
Camp hosts have contributed a large share of those volunteer hours since the program started in the 1980s.
You’ve probably seen camp hosts marked on a map or passed their site if you’ve camped in a state park. Or maybe you’ve gone to them if there’s a problem and you can’t reach a DNR staff member or ranger.
What you probably haven’t seen is the work they do behind the scenes, from cleaning campsites (including fire pits) to replacing toilet paper in bathrooms.
The work — typically 20 to 24 hours per week — has its rewards: a free campsite in a beautiful state park for a month.
For Gilliom and Wasson, that means a chance to camp along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.
"We love the Great Lakes," Gilliom said. “No salt, no sharks, no worries. We are from Florida and we love the ocean, but the freshwater is refreshing.”
While the women have spent the past couple of decades in Florida, they both have ties to the Great Lakes. Wasson is originally from Pennsylvania and Gilliom is from Michigan. After they spent last summer camping in Michigan, they decided to spend this one in Wisconsin. And since they enjoyed volunteering in the Keys, they began looking into doing the same in Wisconsin, specifically at parks along the Great Lakes.
New online system
A new online portal helped with their search.
In February, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources launched a new Volunteer Impact System website that allows volunteers to view and sign up for opportunities across the state park system. In the past, property managers had to send volunteer openings to Hutchens, who then had to get them posted and then removed once they were filled.
At the beginning of the pandemic, when parks couldn't have volunteers onsite, Hutchens began looking for a way to streamline the process and found Better Impact, a volunteer management software used by a handful of other state park systems, including neighboring Minnesota.
The new system, which launched in February, makes it easier for property managers to post opportunities and volunteers to find current ones and sign up. And volunteers' accounts carry over to the other park systems that use the software. That’s especially helpful for camp hosts, some of whom travel year-round in their campers.
State park campgrounds typically have at least one camp host; some bigger ones like Peninsula State Park have multiple. In exchange for a free campsite, hosts are responsible for everything from cleaning campsites (including fire pits) and day-use areas like beaches to bundling and selling firewood.
“Volunteers have been an integral part of our system throughout time,” said Hutchens, the DNR volunteer services coordinator. "They're vital to our customer service model. … They can be our eyes and ears 24/7 and let us know what's happening, or if things need to be fixed, or checked on, and they can answer questions for our campers when our staff are busy doing property maintenance or other tasks. So they are a vital part of our system.”
Hutchens said they get volunteers from all over the country, but it is unusual for volunteers to work in as many parks in one summer as Gilliom and Wasson have.
“I would call them a dynamic duo for sure,” she said.
Five parks in four months
The dynamic duo started their tour de volunteering in May at Kohler Andrae in Sheboygan, where they were greeted by a classic Wisconsin spring.
“When we came in May it was cold! (We) wondered why we left our home in Florida,” Gilliom joked.
They worked in Kohler Andrae’s Nature Center for a month, and despite the cold temperatures that first greeted them, the park has been one of their favorites of the five they’ve volunteered at.
After Kohler Andrae, they took a spin through the Dells, Baraboo and Madison, visiting parks like Devil’s Lake for fun, before heading to Harrington Beach in Belgium. They hadn’t originally planned to volunteer there, but the park had a gap in its campground hosts, so the couple agreed to fill it.
From there they went to Peninsula State Park in Door County, the state's second most popular park, which has multiple hosts spread across four of its campgrounds.
"That was nice because we could get to know the other volunteers,” Gilliom said.
Hutchens said a lot of people discover that is another benefit of giving back.
"A lot of our volunteers have made really good friends with other volunteers, or campers become friends,” she said. “I just think it's the shared joy of the outdoors, and that feeling good about giving back to something that makes them happy.”
Gilliom and Wasson agree.
“It's rewarding,” Gilliom said. “You're out here in nature, you're giving back. You get to meet campers and people that are like-minded in terms of preservation and conservation.”
And they have the chance to encourage more volunteers.
After Peninsula, they went to Copper Falls State Park outside Mellen where they painted fences.
"It was cool because we could hike into the office, basically out into the woods,” Gilliom said. "We painted the big split pole fences. We went through 11 gallons of paint in five days.”
After the Friends of Copper Falls State Park posted on Facebook about the work the couple did there, they said they’ve gotten questions from people interested in volunteering — something they hope their story inspires more of, even if it’s just for a day or a week.
“We were happy to see it on Facebook because it encouraged other volunteers,” Gilliom said. “Our experience with Wisconsin so far has been that a lot of volunteers are repeat volunteers and some of them have been there 20 years, and at some point they'll want to turn over the reins.”
“Anything that volunteers can do to help the state parks or the county parks is huge because any state park is limited in staff and funding. So when the volunteers come in to help, it makes a big difference for the experience of the campers, for the safety of the campers, for the enjoyment of everyone,” she said.
While they noted that they’ve been impressed with how clean Wisconsin’s parks are, they still said “they need more help, or more funding.”
Volunteering in Florida vs. Wisconsin
They compared the one or two campground hosts and handful of other volunteers Wisconsin state parks have to the “village of volunteers” at the Florida parks they’ve been to. There, resident volunteers camp together for free in a separate area of the campground as they volunteer for an entire season, which Florida parks ask for.
That setup means volunteers work three eight-hour days, then are off for three or four days. Because most Wisconsin parks only have one host, they typically are “on” seven days a week, for at least a couple of hours every day.
"Three days on, four days off makes a big difference on recruiting volunteers, I think,” Gilliom said. Indeed, southern Florida has a waiting list for volunteering in some of its parks in the winter, they said.
Of course, the comparison isn’t entirely fair. Florida, especially the Keys, is a major tourist destination, especially in the winter, so the promise of a free campsite in exchange for a few days’ work is a tantalizing offer for everyone from retirees to digital nomads.
Some of Wisconsin’s most popular parks, including Peninsula, are popular, too, and don’t have problems recruiting camp hosts. But other more remote parks like Big Bay sometimes struggle to find enough hosts, which is one reason the women went there a week early for their final volunteer stint.
After five weeks at Big Bay, they’ll head back to Florida, where they’re slated to volunteer again this winter. But they hope they can help encourage more people to volunteer in Wisconsin, a state they’ve fallen in love with this summer.
“We absolutely think Wisconsin is beautiful,” Gilliom said. “We had no idea what it would be like. ... The parks have been beautiful, the state is incredibly clean, which is so nice. It's a carry-in, carry-out state, so we're not seeing a ton of litter. It's just a really beautiful state."
“We love it,” Wasson added.
And they love giving back and hope they can encourage others to do the same.
“If you can't be a resident volunteer, come in for a day, a week, a few hours,” Gilliom said, noting you can even schedule yourself to volunteer for whatever help is needed one day a week, like a group at Kohler Andrae does every Friday.
The DNR’s new online portal allows potential volunteers to filter opportunities not only by park and activity but also by duration. Openings range from single-day activities like trail maintenance and working in a nature center to multiple-week activities like serving as a campground host.
The parks need volunteers in the winter, too, including for things like grooming trails for skiing and fat-tire biking.
Hutchens said people also can call the property they are interested in volunteering at and see what opportunities are available or discuss a project they want to do.
And while some might be hesitant to give up some of their vacation time to volunteer, Gilliom said “there is plenty of time for both. We both are avid hikers and photographers. We also have enjoyed kayaking, boating and bicycling. Exploring the area, getting to know the community and really immersing ourselves in the park culture is what makes the resident volunteer position so rewarding.”
More information: For more on volunteering in Wisconsin state parks, see dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/parks/volunteer. To view current opportunities, see the Volunteer Impact System website, bttr.im/vxkwg.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Florida couple spending summer volunteering in Wisconsin state parks