Be a Volunteer in Demand

Five years of volunteering at national wildlife refuges has brought my husband Chuck and me into contact with many other volunteers whom we’ve enjoyed working with and living near in our RVs.

These volunteers bring needed skills and excellent work ethics from previous life experiences and jobs, and with some we’ve connected with strong emotional attachments that we never experienced living in a neighborhood.

Chuck demonstrating snakes at Yuma River Daze

Volunteer coordinators strive to choose their volunteers not only by their qualifications for a job, but also for their ability to get along with others. They search for volunteers with a positive, enthusiastic attitude. They look for congenial people who do their best not to alienate others who live and work with them. Such people keep their pets under control and limit the noise they create. They don’t monopolize conversations or try to “one-up” others. And they do their best to honor their commitments or contract.

Part of the excitement of volunteering at different parks and refuges is meeting new people who share our lifestyle and our interests. Many volunteers we have worked with keep in touch, and our paths crisscross as we traverse the country. As our network of friends expands, we realize that those chosen for these positions represent the values and commitment we also embrace.

Looking for Volunteers

Kristen Gilbert, Volunteer & Grants Coordinator for Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, interviews potential volunteers as she would anyone applying for a job. “I check references and look for how motivated they are,” she says. Kristen likes to give volunteers the opportunity to learn and grow, and she searches for those interested in learning experiences rather than those who merely want a space to park.

Mid-Columbia National Wildlife Refuge Complex Visitor Services Manager Sue McDonald considers the needs of the Refuge, as well as the needs of the volunteer. “I look for what the volunteer wants to do that fits with what the Refuge wants and needs,” she says. “And I look for enthusiasm and excitement in a volunteer. You need to cherish the volunteers and the needs of the volunteers, or you’re setting up for failure.”

And during a reference check, Sue inquires about their social skills. “It’s very important,” she says, “to know if they get along with others!”

“The first thing that jumps to my mind,” says Imperial National Wildlife Refuge manager Elaine Johnson, “is how well they get along with others, because many are interacting with the public.” Volunteers need to fit in with staff, as well as with other volunteers, according to Elaine. “The way I look at it is that they are full members of the staff. To me, they’re an integral part of the program.”

More inclined to recruit people she meets in person, Nancy Corona, Public Use Ranger for Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, will also consider a good resume from another facility. Nancy looks for those with a good work ethic who can function independently and may not mind being somewhat isolated if working on an assignment in the field.

Helping with biology

When Juliette Gutierrez, Assistant Manager of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, searches for volunteers, she seeks those who are optimistic, flexible, and independent. “I want hard workers,” she says, “who can see things with a new eye and come to the table with positive ideas and enthusiasm to do right by the refuge mission and its community.”

Volunteer service is invaluable, according to Juliette, and staff could not accomplish as much without their help. But she expects her volunteers to understand that, while they’re all on the same team, volunteers are a support system and need to maintain a positive frame of mind. “Truly, a positive attitude can outshine the most skilled worker!”

Ideas from Volunteers

“Volunteers don’t come in as empty vessels,” says Kristen Gilbert. “I’ve learned a lot from managing volunteers, and I like to take advantage of their strengths.”

One of the best lessons Chuck and I have learned, however, came from fellow volunteer, John Fairbank #42661, one of the first live-on volunteers we worked with. “Our motto,” said John and his wife, Joyce, “is that we are there to assist the agency’s staff in any way that we can.” That includes, according to John, monitoring our own work and volunteer hours rather than fretting over what others have or have not done.

Heeding advice from those who choose volunteers and others who are volunteers can make a volunteer experience educational and rewarding. It has more than enhanced our RV life!

A similar version of this article was published in the January/February 2011 issue of Escapees Magazine.

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