Volunteers Crucial to Virginia State Parks' Banner Year
A couple of years ago, with their mid-60s approaching and their working days almost done, Ralph and Carol Crouch took stock of their situation and began looking toward retirement.
When their kids were young, they owned an RV and spent a lot of time in Virginia's George Washington National Forest campgrounds such as the one at Sherando Lake. Life got busier as the kids grew, and they sold the RV. But with retirement looming a couple of years ago, they thought back fondly on their camping days and decided they wanted to recapture some of what was lost 30 years earlier, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported.
So, they bought another RV and hit the road.
"We were visiting different state parks because we hadn't been to them before," said Ralph Crouch, a minister and former Henrico County employee.
At campgrounds throughout the parks system, they met retired folks serving as "camp hosts," volunteers who live on park grounds for one-, two- and three-month periods helping visitors with anything from making a fire and setting up a tent to giving directions and offering fishing pointers.
The Crouches figured the job was perfect for them.
"We like to meet different people. We like to help people. We enjoy nature. This gave us all that opportunity," Ralph said.
For the past two years, the Crouches have been to Occoneechee, Pocahontas, Westmoreland and James River state parks, serving as camp hosts for varying periods of time. This year, they'll go to Belle Isle and back to James River, among others.
Banner Year for Virginia Parks
Every year around this time, the Department of Conservation and Recreation releases attendance figures for its state parks. Last year was another banner one for the system, setting a record for overnight visitation (1,055,875). The press generated by the attendance number and its economic impact, however, often obscures the enormous number of volunteer hours put in by people such as the Crouches.
In 2010, volunteers logged 256,418 hours in Virginia's 35 state parks, offering an estimated $5,366,829 in value to the system. The 2011 final numbers haven't been tabulated, but the 215,000 volunteer hours logged by the end of September put them on pace for a year about the same as 2010.
Under parks director Joe Elton, volunteer hours have gone from fewer than 100,000 in 2000 to where they are now.
"It should be a no-brainer, but maybe it didn't dawn on some of those before me just how important it is to have the park owners, the citizens of Virginia, involved in their parks," Elton said. "It's one thing to have them come visit, and they do . . . but it's another thing to create volunteer opportunities where their talents can be showcased. We've expanded the volunteer opportunities to include virtually anything that can be done at a state park.
"If a camp host has plumbing expertise, we'll put them to work on it. If they are naturalists or birders or educators, we've got programs that they can be involved in."
Last year at James River State Park, Carol Crouch used her needlepoint skills to mend curtains in some of the cabins, and Ralph helped with repairs to the horse-camp area.
In this era of tight budgets and doing more with less, volunteers are more valuable than ever, Elton said.
"Our view is that a volunteer is kind of on the same level as an employee. These are important human resources that can be used to expand and enhance our programs."
Dan Quesenberry is the park manager at Pocahontas, one of the places the Crouches set up shop last year for a couple of months. He said volunteers there run the gamut from the Friends of Pocahontas State Park, made up mostly of mountain bikers and other trail-focused types, to environmental educators and workers in the museum and camp store.
The camp hosts, he said, are especially helpful because "during their 30-, 60- or 90-day stay . . . they live in the park. Because we don't have staffing to run a 24-hour shift . . . they can contact us, call us at our house."
And for retirees on a fixed income, Ralph Crouch said, you can't beat free rent and the use of a golf cart to get around. Not to mention the natural beauty all around you.
"There's a bit of camaraderie among everybody," he said. "The campers have the same interests, they like to be outdoors, they like to view nature. Virginia has probably one of the best state parks (systems) in the country."