Volunteers crucial to national parks
July 18, 2011 12:14 AM | 612 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ST. SIMONS ISLAND — Pat Donahoo greets visitors to Fort Frederica National Monument with the warmth of a host welcoming an honored guest into his home.

“I try to be a goodwill ambassador for the Park Service, St. Simons Island and Georgia,” Donahoo said.

He answered visitors’ questions about the park’s rich history as one of Great Britain’s strongest forts in its Georgia colony as he manned the visitors center and museum on a Thursday morning.

“It’s fun being a volunteer because you get to meet a lot of interesting people ... (and) you learn a lot, too, “ said Donahoo, who’s volunteered nearly three years at the park on St. Simons Island.

The St. Simons Island resident is among hundreds of volunteers who donate thousands of hours at national parks in Southeast Georgia, including Fort Frederica, Cumberland Island National Seashore and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

“Our volunteers are much more than important. They’ve really become essential,” Cumberland Superintendent Fred Boyles said.

Whether helping a few hours weekly or spending up to three months at a time, the volunteers range from area residents to students on break from college or high school and retirees who travel the country in recreational vehicles.

Last year, 450 volunteers performed 20,000 hours of work at Cumberland, said Maggie Tyler, the park’s chief of interpretation and education.

So far, they’ve had about 200 volunteers and expect at least that many more by year end, said Tyler, who coordinates the volunteers.

The volunteers, Boyles said, work in the park’s museum and visitors center, serve as caretakers for the historic 20,000-square-foot Plum Orchard Mansion, maintain the island’s 50 miles of hiking trails and its beaches, and do so much more.

“The most important thing they bring is their presence. They are here for the park and our visitors,” Boyles said. “Our volunteers gain a tremendous knowledge about the park, and many of them do much more than just help us out; they become real supporters and some of our best advocates.”

A retired Rich SeaPak executive, Donahoo discovered Fort Frederica’s volunteer program by chance.

He and his wife, Dorothy, were seated across from park Superintendent Mary Beth Wester at a Rotary Club lunch. While chatting with the couple, Wester mentioned the park needed volunteers.

“My wife looked at me and said, ‘That sounds like a good thing for you to do.’ And here I am,” Donahoo said.

Donahoo works four hours each Thursday, typically in the museum and visitors center. It’s hard to say who enjoys it more, Donahoo or the visitors.

“I have a lot of fun talking to the visitors, finding out where they’re from and where they’re going ... I always get something out of interacting with the people,” Donahoo said.

Donahoo is among about 10 regular volunteers at the park, which also has a separate group of about 10 re-enactors who make up the Fort Frederica volunteer regiment.

Last year, the fort hosted 294,970 visitors. They rely on the volunteers to help ensure people have an enjoyable and educational visit, said Ted Johnson, interpretive park ranger and volunteer coordinator.

Donahoo and fellow volunteers are an asset and resource to the park, whether it be working in the museum and visitors center, serving as living history guides or maintaining the grounds, Wester said.

Volunteers are critical, Wester said, to Fort Frederica’s Archaeology Education Program, which serves fourth-graders from Glynn County public and private schools. In partnership with the school system, the program teaches students core subjects including history and science.

“This program helps students connect to the past in a real way through hands-on experiences. Students actively discover what the settlers of Frederica left behind,” Wester said.

The park is seeking volunteers to help with that program, which is offered during the school year, Johnson said.

Johnson said students from schools and College of Coastal Georgia also help the park year-round.
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