Celebrating Volunteerism In Our National Parks

Stefanie MathewNPF Blog

In June 2015, the National Park Foundation was proud to partner with the National Park Service to honor an incredible group of national park supporters. Each year, nearly 250,000 volunteers provide invaluable support throughout the National Park System by donating their time, talent, and energy to America’s most treasured places.

The George and Helen Hartzog Awards for Outstanding Volunteer Service recognize the exemplary contributions of individuals of all ages and backgrounds who help strengthen our national parks across the country. I would like to tell you the story of one of these amazing volunteers.

Thelma Johnson is 80 years old and she loves to wear pink. She has also donated over 2,000 hours of her own time to cook and serve meals to volunteers on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin. These volunteers come together for up to five days of hard labor and camping out through the Mobile Skills Crew program, and for the past 12 years Thelma has been there to make sure these crews are well fed.

Volunteer Thelma Johnson has donated over 2,000 hours of her own time to cook and serve meals to volunteers

I was able to visit the Mobile Skills Crew in St. Croix, Wisconsin, to see these volunteers – and Thelma – in action. The crews were building brand new trails to connect the different sections of the Ice Age Trail throughout the state. They were digging in the dirt to pull up large, heavy rocks and constructing new boardwalks to make sure the trails were safe and enjoyable for hikers for years to come. This was really physical, hard work.

Volunteers building boardwalk on Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin

Thelma and her crew were hard at work too, cooking up a comfort food feast for hundreds of volunteers. Everyone knew to stay out of Thelma’s kitchen tent, where she was clearly in charge, but she was also quick to come out to say hello and give her fellow volunteers big hugs. Even in the summer heat and severe thunderstorms, Thelma went out of her way to care for all of the people who were devoting their time to improve the trail. She is truly the heart of the Mobile Skills Crew and I am honored to have enjoyed her delicious meal.

Thelma Johnson volunteer meal

Each of the 2014 Hartzog Award winners have their own incredible stories to tell, and you can learn more about these winners here:

  • Individual Volunteer Award – Tom Moberg, North Country National Scenic Trail
  • Youth Volunteer Award – Sterling Fisher, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Enduring Service Award – Thelma Johnson, Ice Age National Scenic Trail
  • Youth Volunteer Group Award – Buena High School Environmental Club, Channel Islands National Park
  • Volunteer Group Award – Kennesaw Mountain Trail Club, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
  • Park Volunteer Program Award – Big Bend National Park Volunteer Program

If you’d like to get involved, click here. Find a national park near you and see what kind of volunteer opportunities are available! 

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