Working for the not-so-secret service

Last year, 125,000 volunteers served 4.5 million hours in the U.S. park system

Last year, 125,000 volunteers served 4.5 million hours in the U.S. park system

August 10, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

Ed Mahoney majored in history in college but didn't get to use it much in his marketing career. Since he retired from J.C. Penney Co. Inc. three years ago, he's put his history degree to good use. This summer, he and his wife, Kaaren - who live in Rockwell, Texas, eight months a year - are volunteers at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

The couple did their first tour of volunteer duty at Harpers Ferry in 2000. They were back in 2001 and spent last summer in northern California volunteering at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

They arrived this year - with their 30-foot recreational vehicle in tow - to begin work June 20 and will stay through Labor Day, says Kaaren Mahoney.


The Mahoneys, who have visited 129 national park sites, work seven hours a day, four days a week. Kaaren Mahoney, 60, sometimes is in the information center, sometimes in park offices, helping with administrative work, doing "any little project" to help out.

"After enjoying so many national parks, we decided we'd give back some," she says.

The Harpers Ferry volunteers are not alone.

In fiscal year 2002, 125,000 volunteers contributed 4.5 million hours of service in the nation's park system, according to the annual report of the Volunteers-In-Parks program, online at Those hours are valued at $72,225,000, according to the Web site.

There were 40 parks when President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the federal bureau of the Interior Department in 1916. There are now 56 parks among the 388 "units" in the National Park system. They include national battlefields, national memorials and monuments, rivers, lakeshores, seashores, scenic rivers, riverways and trails.

The Volunteers-In-Parks program was authorized in 1970 as a way to utilize voluntary help and services from the public in ways that benefit both the Park Service and the volunteers.

It's working.

"They truly make a difference," says David Fox, park ranger and volunteer coordinator at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Ed Mahoney spends the bulk of his volunteer hours in the John Brown Museum.

"You get to do the kinds of things you want to do," Ed Mahoney says. "It's rewarding to answer people's questions. It's kind of fun."

And if he doesn't know the answer on the spot, he enjoys researching the subject, finding the answer and mailing or e-mailing it to the questioner.

But Ed Mahoney's involvement is not totally selfish. He says he's helping people to have a better experience at the park.

Rosalie Grimm, 64, also volunteers at Harpers Ferry. Like Ed Mahoney, she spends most of her four days a week at the John Brown Museum.

"I love American history," she says. "I don't think people really appreciate our country's past."

Everything that's happened has made Americans what they are today, she says. Volunteering at the national park is Grimm's way of saying thank you.

Volunteers range from elementary school kids placing American flags at Antietam National Battlefield on Memorial Day to crews of middle and high school students, scout troops and community groups collecting trash and pruning overgrowth on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

Helping in the parks is a way for students to meet community service requirements. David Tune, a college student intern who serves as assistant volunteer coordinator for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, works with school teachers and students. He's had middle school students tell him they'll never litter again after volunteering to pick up trash along the canal.

Last year volunteers racked up 21,000 volunteer hours at Antietam National Battlefield, says John Howard, superintendent of the battlefield. Some individuals schedule a few hours a week. There are groups that schedule work projects once or twice a year. There are the volunteers you see - people staffing the information desk, living historians at special events - and volunteers who are not quite so visible.

Since reforestation of the battlefield's North and West Woods - a total of about 30 acres - began in 1995, volunteers have planted most of the 16,078 seedlings and about 300 "ball and burlap" trees, says Joe Calzarette, the park's natural resources manager.

School students are among volunteers who have cleaned headstones at Antietam's National Cemetery, and a couple of summers ago, Girl Scouts primed and painted some of the artillery, says Jane Custer, chief of cultural resources at Antietam.

Because of volunteers, rangers can go out and do more (educational) programs, Howard says. "The amount of work that needs to be done far outweighs the number of people here to do it," Howard adds. "There are days we wouldn't be able to be open without volunteers."

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