St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park has been Al and Diane Longheinrich’s summer home for the past 12 years.
As campground hosts at St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park, Diane and Al get a free site in return for providing support when the office is closed, giving information to visitors as needed, checking on campsites and bathroom facilities, and talking with parks staff.
“You have to have less clothing, fewer utensils, fewer pots and pans, and we eat out a lot,” Diane said. “But we took to it like a butterfly. We love it.”
The Longheinrechs are among thousands of people who collectively volunteer hundreds of thousands of hours each year in the regional parks and trails system.
“They’re extra eyes and ears for us,” said Washington County Parks Coordinator Lori Meyers. “Sometimes you might have campers who don’t quiet down at night, or have sudden emergencies like a power failure. The hosts are right on site so they can…alert us to situations that might be developing.”
Falling in love and making a commitment
When John Gamlin moved to the Twin Cities from South Dakota in 1990, he asked his realtor for a house with two things: a good school district and access to great parks. When she showed him pictures of Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Dakota County, he fell in love, and Rosemount became his family’s new home.
More than two decades later, the park has not lost its luster for Gamlin. He camps, skis cross-country and canoes in the park.
“It started off with the park itself,” Gamlin said. “It was almost like a slice of the Boundary Waters right here in our urban environment. The park brought me in, but it’s the people that bring me back.”
And the people bring him back volunteering every year.
His passion for Lebanon Hills began with his sons’ Boy Scout troops. His active role in the organization led him to the park, and when he heard about a Master Plan Task Force for the park many years ago, he seized the opportunity. Having a voice in the planning aspect of a park was important to him. Now, he volunteers as a ski patroller, represents Rosemount on the county’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, and helps out at special events
Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Dakota County relies on volunteers to help patrol cross-country ski trails, aiding people who need help. Shown here is the campfire gathering area in front of the park’s visitor center during a candlelight ski event. (Photo courtesy John Gamlin)
“We are ambassadors of the park,” he said of the ski patrol group he works with. Gamlin said they lend a hand when people are having a “negative situation,” so that the situation doesn’t leave a permanent impression. “Park staff can’t be in every corner of the park. That’s where volunteers help out.”
Gardening for animals and humans alike
At Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, about 14 acres of land are maintained by 17 hired horticulture staff. But without the help of dedicated volunteers, the park could not maintain its natural beauty. In 2011, there were nearly 1,200 volunteers and interns at the park; altogether, Como volunteers put in over 40,000 hours each year.
“They help me keep the zoo beautified,” said Como staff member Heather Hauschildt.
“It’s a great place to be outside,” said garden aide Joan Sorenson. “It restores your soul.”
But it’s about more than just gardening. Volunteering is a social experience too. Through volunteering as a garden aide, Terri Tacheny has developed many friendships. And she’s had adventure. She took a trip to Borneo with Como’s Primate Enrichment group, something she said she never would have done before volunteering.
“The best people volunteer,” Tacheny said. “You make good long-lasting friends. I always say: ‘If your social life is failing, volunteer!’ You meet really neat people!”
Artist Laurel O’Gorman volunteers in the Japanese Garden, and said gardening is a lot like art. “I sculpt!” she said, gesturing to her hedge trimmers. “It’s a creative process. It’s joyful.”
In the Japanese Garden, visitors come to escape. Taking care of that environment to maintain a peaceful place is important, O’Gorman said. Creating a similar experience for visitors drives her to volunteer, as well as a passion for the park.
“Everyone needs a space to go where they can have nature,” she said. “People in the city can’t always have that, but this is accessible. I find the garden to be a little jewel in the middle of the city.”
Volunteers tackle invasive species
The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, a 15-acre garden inside Theodore Wirth Regional Park, is the oldest public wildflower garden in the U.S. It has become home for over 500 different plant species and more than 130 species of birds. But a few years back, the prominence of invasive species, particularly garlic mustard and buckthorn, threatened the garden’s natural wonders.
“Some species will kind of coexist, and some are just annoying, but these two in particular don’t coexist [with the native species],” said volunteer Liz Anderson. When left to their own devices, these invasives take over and keep the seeds of the native flowers and plants from germinating.
In about 2006, John Proctor – an enthusiast of the garden – began noticing the increasing dominance of invasive species in the garden. He began helping the staff to weed, and soon was asked to coordinate a volunteer group devoted to removing the invasives.
Laurel O’Gorman brings artistic skills to her volunteer work in the Japanese Garden at Como Zoo & Conservatory.
For this group, the battle is long-term. Garlic mustard and buckthorn are biennial, so it takes two seasons just to fully weed, and after that, the gardeners must continue to look over the space, or the invasive species will take over again. It’s hard, physical labor – herbicides are prohibited, so the volunteers fight with their hands and trusted weed wrenches.
“You know that you’re rescuing native wildflowers, trees, and shrubs,” Proctor said. “You liberate something. You’re making something in nature more likely to survive.”
“To get a lot of native birds, you need native plants,” Anderson added.
Teaching goes beyond the classroom
Patty Feeney has been a visitor at Hyland-Bush-Anderson Lakes Park Reserve in the Three Rivers Park District for many years. Once an elementary school teacher in Minneapolis, nature centers in the Three Rivers Park District were her top-choice field trips. Now in her retirement she volunteers at the nature centers for similar school groups as a program assistant.
“I think it’s just really important to give back to my community, and my way of doing that is by working with children,” Feeney said.
Teaching is her strength and her passion; but so is natural science. Volunteering at the nature center combines the two.
“I like watching the light bulbs go on,” she said. “I like seeing children enjoy what they’re doing.” She said she especially enjoys working with kids from inner cities, who don’t get to experience nature the way rural-grown kids do.
“One of the things that is happening now is that children are not getting the opportunity to play in the natural world,” Feeney said. “The parents aren’t letting them go in the woods, the parents are working so their kids are in daycare all day, or the kids are using technology too much rather than playing in the dirt.
“Children need to catch frogs, search for salamanders, build a dam in the stream, and play in the mud,” she said. “The nature centers at Three Rivers Park District provide that opportunity.”
In her lifetime, Feeney has volunteered over 1,000 hours of service to Three Rivers Park District, with many more still to come.
“I think everybody who has the chance should volunteer,” Feeney said. “And they certainly don’t have to do what I’m doing. They need to find what they’re interested in and find a place to volunteer with their interests. It’s very self-satisfying.”