SACRAMENTO, Calif. (July 1, 2013) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District parks get a lot of love from volunteers – and the volunteers say they get just as much in return.
More than 5,000 volunteers donated 91,000 hours of service at Sacramento District parks in the past year, adding their personal touch to make visitors’ outdoor experiences truly great.
Many Corps park volunteers, especially the campground hosts, are retirees who have decided to live in their motor homes full time. Frank and Linda Strehle, previous campground hosts at Stanislaus River Parks in Knights Ferry, no longer own a brick-and-mortar home and have lived in their RV since retiring 10 years ago.
They have always valued serving others. Frank and Linda met in the Navy when she was a nurse and he was a corpsman. Frank was a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer for 10 years and also helped in anti-gang programs.
They’re easy to spot. Once the Strehles reach their destination, they park the RV and do all their sightseeing on the Harley-Davidson motorcycle that they trailer behind the motor home.
The Strehles have volunteered at numerous park systems across the nation, ranging from a wildlife refuge in Idaho, an excursion train in Cordele, Ga., and even an historic grist mill in San Antonio, Texas. They have a particular love for interpretive educational programs where they can interact with young people.
“At Knights Ferry, we have presented a program for students where we explained the history of the area and how the covered bridge is unique,” said Frank.
“As a camp host, I think the challenge is to let campers know that you are there to be helpful and establish a relationship with them while not being intrusive,” said Linda.
The fulltime RV lifestyle wasn’t a difficult adjustment for them.
“We used to spend a lot of time on our boat, so we were used to living and cooking in limited space,” said Linda. “We have always loved road trip vacations … which our kids used to love to complain about.”
Nowadays their grandkids plan vacations in order to visit Frank and Linda on the road.
“Our favorite spot for that is Knights Ferry,” said Linda. “The kids can visit us there and also take in some spring skiing and trips to San Francisco.”
“Usually, we stay in a park at least three months – that gives us time to connect with the community and find the closest Harley dealer in the area,” Frank joked. “But at three months we’re itching to get the wheels rolling again.”
The Strehles will be making their next westward swing in 2014 when they’re scheduled to be in New Mexico, Idaho and then back at Stanislaus River Parks for the close of the year.
Jeff and Geneva Jones, well-known to visitors at both Stanislaus River Parks and the Sacramento District’s Lake Kaweah, enjoyed five years of campground volunteering so much that Jeff left retirement and is now a state park ranger at Rocky Bayou State Park, near Niceville, Fla.
“I’ll probably do it a few more years, now that I’m 60, and then I’ll go back to volunteering,” said Jeff.
Their first volunteer assignment was at Lake Kaweah in the autumn of 2003 and they stayed six months, working in the campground and visitor center. Geneva led tours through the visitor center and explained the workings of the dam’s giant fuse gates.
There were always a lot of fishermen at Lake Kaweah and many visitors were from Europe, they said. “We shared Christmas dinner with some Israeli tourists,” Jeff remembered.
“We like to volunteer about 90 to 120 days at a shot and during that time we’ll travel in a 200-mile radius to visit the area,” Jeff said. “The rangers always have great hints about where to go and what to try.”
“It’s nice to have a free campsite and a chance to sit still awhile and take care of doctor appointments and such,” Jeff said. “And, for us, our travel expenses were tax-deductible when volunteering for a government agency.
“We’ve made friends all along the way and we stay in touch with Army Corps park rangers from across the country,” said Jeff. “Army Corps rangers seem to go above and beyond to see that we get whatever we need for the job and make us feel valued.”
The Joneses volunteered throughout the Northwest – Washington, Oregon and Alaska. “We stayed in Alaska long enough to see the Northern Lights in the summer,” said Jeff.
These campground hosts don’t ‘rough it’ by most people’s standards. “We’re DISH-networked for television in the RV and haven’t owned a landline (telephone) for the past 10 years,” said Jeff. And they are active in the digital RV volunteer community on the Internet where they share ideas and reviews about the various parks.
Chet and Shirley “Sam” Morris first volunteered at the Sacramento District’s Pine Flat Lake in October 2006. Since that time they’ve opted for a middle ground between volunteering and full-time employment as “work campers” at several Corps parks across the country.
The Morrises sold their last conventional house in 2003 and hit the road in a 40-foot four-slide motor home that includes a fireplace. They’re currently living in an RV park in southeast Washington while Sam completes physical therapy for a shoulder injury.
Chet saw ads in “Workamper” magazine and called Pine Flat Lake Park in the spring of 2006. “We took our RV there to be winter caretakers after a visit to a doll show in Southern California,” said Chet.
“Winter caretakers help accomplish things the crew doesn’t have time for in summer,” said Chet.
Those duties included painting some facilities, taking part in an eagle count and building a fish habitat with recycled Christmas trees.
“The park rangers at Pine Flat treat us just like family,” said Chet.
“We enjoy the variety of activities and we like to give something back, repaying our good fortune,” said Chet. “We sure have met a lot of neat people over the years.”
The Corps just established a Volunteer Pass Program which enables volunteers who have served a minimum of 100 hours at Corps managed areas to receive a waiver of all day use fees for one year. The purpose of this program is to support and recognize volunteers who have served the Corps in an exemplary way and encourage their visitation and use of Corps parks.