Five Facts About Volunteering

Workamper Viewpoint by Jaimie Hall-Bruzenak

Volunteering is one way to Workamp. It can have many rewards for those who choose to give of their time and efforts to an organization. For us, volunteering has given us an RV site and special experiences.

While working in Skagway, Alaska, partway through our first summer my late husband, Bill, became campground host for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. We had been paying $360/month for an RV site at a campground in town. We now had a site, free propane and a stipend in exchange for a few hours work a week. Bill worked in town and we did the camphosting duties before and after work or on our days off.

Now, instead of looking in our neighbors' windows, we looked out at the Lynn Canal. On the drive to the campground we regularly saw bald eagles. We were also away from the hustle bustle of the cruise ship passengers that packed the streets of Skagway during the day. We had the satisfaction of keeping the campground clean and safe. Bears were a problem so we patrolled the campground to ensure coolers and food were not left out to attract the bears.

At Big Bend National Park, volunteers staffed the Castolon Visitor Center six days a week. My husband, George, was one of two volunteers assigned there, working there three days a week. On his other work day he hiked trails and gave an evening program. In return he got an RV site, reimbursed for propane, and went through the same training paid seasonal interpretive rangers do, learning about the park's wildlife, history, geology and more. The training culminated in an overnight canoe trip down the Rio Grande through the Santa Elena Canyon, catered by the rangers! A trip with a commercial company would have cost several hundred dollars. To get the same knowledge about the park, you'd have to pay for an Elderhostel program.

Some Workampers prefer volunteering to working in a paid position. One reason often mentioned is that volunteers are usually appreciated. Many agencies treat their volunteers like VIPs - in fact, that's what the National Park Service calls their volunteers in parks - VIPs because they are also Very Important People and the agency could not provide the visitor services they do nor run their operation without them. State parks rely heavily on volunteers as well, as do other government and nonprofit agencies.


Different ways to volunteer

Some Workampers only take volunteer assignments. They have other sources of income. They don't need to earn money from Workamping or may not want to jeopardize social security or retirement income by earning too much. Often, though, volunteering reduces expenses because an RV site is provided.

Other Workampers mix working for pay and volunteering. They might work part of the year and then volunteer for a free RV site another season. Volunteering can be more flexible than working. Some assignments are short or the agency will accept volunteers for a month or two, rather than requiring a full season. You might volunteer for a site and hold a job elsewhere, like we did in Skagway, or one person volunteer, the other work in a paid position.

Volunteering is a good way to get Workamping experience. Volunteer assignments can serve to give you good references and experience on your resume. This could be helpful if you've been out of the workforce for a while, have no related past work experience or are having a difficult time finding a position. Volunteering for an agency can also lead to a paying position in that field. My volunteer stint at Wild Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park helped me get a paid position as an interpretive ranger in Skagway.

Here are five more useful things to know about volunteering:

1. Volunteering is different than an exchange: When you volunteer it is for a nonprofit organization or a government entity. We call it an exchange when you trade your time and effort for an RV site for a commercial operation.

2. Workampers volunteer for many reasons: Here are a few that Workampers have mentioned.

  • To give back
  • To stay in an area for a while
  • To get a free RV site
  • To add structure to their lives and to stay busy
  • To help an organization achieve a cause or mission they believe in
  • To be in a beautiful area
  • To have a shorter obligation than a full season
  • For the perks or extras like free admissions and free propane or laundry

3. Some volunteer positions are competitive: Some spots are particularly desirable like along the coast. Southern California in the winter and along the Oregon coast in summer are highly sought after and many volunteers come back year after year. Some national parks have more applicants than positions. In addition, a few agencies require training. For example, working as a volunteer for the Red Cross during disasters requires the prior completion of some courses.

4. There is an amazing variety of volunteer tasks: We often think of camphosting when we think volunteering. However, most any paid task could be done as a volunteer. Think of the organization you'd like to volunteer for and what sort of things have to be done. For example, in a national park, they hire workers in interpretation, resource management, maintenance and may need help with projects involving computers, GPS, photography, archeology and more.

5. Ask questions before taking a position: Treat finding a volunteering position like finding a paying job. Ask about all aspects of your position: Be sure to include:

  • Duties
  • Hours
  • Days off
  • RV site
  • Availability of cell and Internet service
  • Uniform Length of season
  • Any other compensation/perks such as propane, laundry or stipend

Volunteering is another way to experience the Workamping lifestyle. Whether you want to totally focus on volunteering or do it now and then, volunteer assignments can help you achieve your goals for the RV lifestyle.

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