Volunteering in the National Parks of the United States has been one of the most enjoyable ways we have funded our U.S. travel and worldschooled our children. Volunteers often say, “we are paid in sunsets.” The free large campsite and full hookups are well worth the work invested.
Last year (2013), we volunteered as camp hosts at the breathtaking Padre Island National Seashore. We were volunteers during the park’s busiest two months of the year: June and July. Our thirteen year-old son and eleven year-old daughter were eager junior volunteers. In fact, the whole family participated in sea life conservation, educational opportunities, and helping the community.
If you have ever experienced a muggy Texas summer, you know how desirable air conditioning can be in the bug-filled, still night air. Like most National Parks, only the Camp Host site has an electric and sewer hookup. Our large site overlooked the azure blue Gulf Coast. Even with the A/C running, we could hear the crashing waves each night. It was glorious. Also, as camp host at Padre Island, we enjoyed the use of laundry facilities.
At the crack of dawn, before frying our bacon in the open-air and scrambling eggs, our children freely ran, played, and splashed. We watched abundant wildlife. We marveled at the pelican migration, sometimes counting over a hundred pelicans a day. Great blue herons devoured their morning catch. The occasional small sharks buzzed by the shore. Coyotes finished their night hunts while ghost crabs emerged in their sidestep dance. Holding hands, Brent and I smiled as we quietly observed the wonder in our children’s eyes.
There are many different volunteer opportunities. Last Year, 221,000 people donated 6.4 million hours to the National Park Service. Jobs such as maintenance, photography, and office work are often available. Camp hosts are a coveted job at most parks.
At Padre Island, our role included general oversight of the camping areas. We greeted guests, verified payments, encouraged site clean-up, and answered questions. We had a 2-way radio for any emergencies or trouble within the camp site. Rangers would be there in minutes.
We received and relayed warnings for storms or sightings of Portugese men-of-war or stingrays. We were advised how to treat any serious stings while we radioed for help, if needed.
During our time, a small child sustained a sting, attracted by the shimmering blue man-of-war. After treating her leg with running hot water (and a vitamin C lollipop), she was fine.
In addition, we participated in keeping the beaches clean. Tar from the 2010 BP oil spill (largest in history) continues to occasionally wash ashore at Padre Island. This fact became a family point of conversation, shaping our children´s thinking about the environment. We took the opportunity to discuss the factors involved in such a spill. This was an experience that could not be duplicated in a classroom.
During our time at Padre Island National Seashore, the white pelicans were making their spectacular migration. Park rangers gave us resources and information to pass on to visitors. They helped us take the first opportunity to see where birds were nesting. The rangers, delighted to have young people interested in their work, took time to inspire our children. These moments they will never forget.
We also enjoyed being part of the continuing conservation project for the Kemp´s Ridley sea turtle. We asked every camper to inform of us of any turtle sightings or nests. Once we confirmed a sighting, we radioed rangers who came to mark the nests and protect the hatchlings.
The highlight of our two months as camp hosts came for me at one of Padre Island´s turtle hatchling releases. I was given the rare chance to use my skills as a photographer and had up-close access to the the hatchlings as they made their way to the water. Several hundred people came from around the US to participate in the event.
Our thirteen year-old son, Josiah, had his crowning moment when he found the the large plastron of a sea turtle along the shore. In the United States, it’s illegal to own any part of a sea turtle body. His find is now a part of the small museum collection viewed by the guests at the beautifully maintained visitors’ center. His name is recorded in the book where those who give donations to the museum are kept.
Many other volunteer positions exist in the 58 national parks. Most parks require 20 hours of work (which can be divided among the couple). Some parks offer trailers or cabins in exchange for 40 hours of work. As camp hosts, you will be given two days (of your choosing) to be days off.
Most of our work days were very enjoyable. Like all jobs, there are a few downsides. A camp host during the busy season will find it impossible to stay with the 20 hour work. Our large site was prominently signed CAMP HOST, attracting the occasional late arrival. On our rounds, a few weekend campers stretched the quiet hours or occupancy limits. Of course, all of this becomes a part of your duty, and rangers are very attentive on their rounds, especially on the busiest nights.
Our family cherishes the memories of our two months of family volunteering. We hope to volunteer again one day. We left with friendships with some guests that we still maintain. If you love people and the great outdoors, volunteering is an outstanding opportunity to grow and share. If you want to volunteer, visit http://volunteer.gov/