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Going Mobile: Couples Combine Work and Travel

March 12, 2012 by   - () Leave a Comment

In a week, Rusty and Diane Oleszewski of Pennsylvania will pack their belongings into a 400-square-foot camper and set off on a nomadic life.

The Manor Township couple is joining the growing number of “workampers,” folks who live fulltime out of a camper or RV while they do seasonal work wherever the road and the opportunities take them, the Lancaster New Era reported.

The Oleszewskis are headed to a dude ranch in North Carolina, where he will do maintenance and she will cook for guests until December. After that, well, who knows?

“I guess my wife and I are kind of risk-takers a little bit,” Oleszewski, 52, said. “We don’t have any children, so we’ve lived by the motto of ‘Let’s not find ourselves in 20 years down the road saying we should have done that or should have tried that.’ ”

Most of them retirees, some with colorful nicknames like “Gypsy Larry,” the workampers man parks, tourist attractions and campgrounds all over the country, including here in Lancaster County.

They cook and clean, answer the phones, cut the grass, run amusement park rides and shuttle guests here and there.

Some do it in exchange for their campground site fees, spending their free time touring wherever they land. But more and more in this tight economy, others want an hourly wage and a steadier income.

An entire industry has grown up to support the lifestyle, with publications, seminars and websites such as workamper.com, workersonwheels.com and workampingtoday.com, where workers and employers can find each other as well as RV accessories, cell phone apps, tax tips and other information.

Lake-in-Wood Resort in Brecknock Township hires between eight and 10 workamper couples every summer. The couples come to the campground from all over the country, including the Dakotas, the Carolinas and Florida, said Jerome Bakker, the resort’s manager.

Some, like “Gypsy Larry,” a retired principal from Pittsburgh, have acquired a park trailer that they leave at the Narvon campground. They travel from Narvon to other job sites, perhaps in Florida or Arizona, over the winter.

The workamping phenomenon has grown over the past decade, Bakker said, and most large campgrounds now employ the itinerant workers.

Jim Breneman is the manager of the Old Mill Stream Campground, which is adjacent to Dutch Wonderland on Route 30. For about 10 years, he’s employed five workamper couples who live at the campground and work there and at Dutch Wonderland.

“They are great people,” he said.

Larry Lima, 62, got his start in the camping industry as director of the Lancaster YMCA’s Camp Shand in Lebanon County in the 1980s.

After working in the industry and doing some other jobs, he and his wife decided to became workampers in 2008, working at sites in Washington, Texas and now Arizona.

“RVs are fast becoming a way of life for all those who have lost their homes and/or jobs,” he said in an email. “In our economy of today, it is a reasonable way to live, at a low cost.”

A little more than half of workampers work to supplement their retirement income, according to the workamper.com website. The rest are in it mostly for the travel opportunities.

No one keeps statistics on the number of workampers, but the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) estimates about a half a million people live in RVs full time in this country, spokesman Kevin Broom said.

Since they aren’t yet retired and don’t collect Social Security, the Oleszewskis will be collecting a regular wage, between $2,000 and $2,500 a month for both of them, for their seasonal work at Clear Creek Ranch in Burnsville, N.C.

In the winter, they might try to secure a job with Amazon, which hires large numbers of workampers to staff its regional shipping warehouses during the Christmas rush, Oleszewski said.

The couple is finishing up work as property managers for Pheasant Ridge, a manufactured housing community. Their job provided their home so they didn’t have to worry about selling a house before they embarked on their workamping stint, which they hope to do until they hit retirement age.

To downsize, they sold belongings online, gave some things to charities and stored some with friends.

The friends, he said, have been “impressed by our gumption” and a little envious of the take-to-the-road attitude of the couple.

“We get that a lot from people,” Oleszewski said with a slightly nervous laugh. “I say, ‘We’ll let you know in six months how it goes.’ ”

Joe T. Kaufhold, a Columbia native who now lives in Virginia, has done workamping off and on since 2008 with his wife, Ruth. Both work with computers out of wherever home happens to be, which allows them some flexibility.

Kaufhold, 63, has workamped for a state park in Virginia and also for an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky.

The couple, who lived on a houseboat for a time, have a touch of wanderlust.

“We were looking for an adventure, something to do other than a 9-to-5 job, and travel,” he said. “It is exciting.”

 

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