I am a Volunteer

The office that the Rangers and some of the Volunteers use at James A. Garfield NHS accommodates 6 desks in relative comfort, even if Ranger Alan’s thermos occasionally ends up next to my keyboard. To look around the room, you may not think much of it. Ranger Mary’s small bulletin board has pictures of family and Ranger Joan has a picture of several local historic buildings hanging next to her desk. Otherwise the only thing on the walls is the board that posts the daily tour schedule, Rangers’ work schedules, and several other odds and ends, like a newspaper article quoting Betty White on why she’d like to be a Park Ranger someday (as if she hasn’t done enough in her life time). Though it should be pointed out that the simplicity of this room certain belies the amount of work and mischief that goes on inside its walls.

The room next door is the lunch room that doubles as the staff’s library and then triples as a little kitchenette. At any given time you might find Volunteer Interpreters in training, Rangers pouring over old Garfield family pictures trying to remember who-is-who, or on Saturdays Volunteer Rebecca eating her lunch and reading. The lunch table is strewn with books, brochures on other NPS sites, and the occasional baked good brought in by Rangers Mary, Allison, or Joan (which never lasts long anyway – being a Ranger is hungry work). The books in the book case are anything from diaries, biographies written by authors lost to time, books on other presidents, historic cookbooks, and even child- oriented education books. The book shelves on the opposite side of the room are littered with old floppy disks, VHS tapes, binders upon binders of photographs and house history, and of course a small station for the Volunteers to sign out their keys and radios for the day. The room is certainly clean of trash and debris, but the presence of all the historic material gives you the distinct impression that an important conversation about President Garfield’s life or times just occurred, leaving you to ponder what it might have been.

The National Park Service volunteer logo incorporates the agency's iconic "arrowhead" logo but is distinctive enough to generate pride in those who wear it.  (NPS image)

The National Park Service volunteer logo incorporates the agency’s iconic “arrowhead” logo but is distinctive enough to generate pride in those who wear it. (NPS image)

And of course going downstairs brings us to one of the most important aspects of what any of us do here: the visitors. Our visitors range in age from babes with pacifiers to grandparents in walkers, and come from every walk of life you can imagine: a family driving across the country touring our National Parks; a couple from out of state attending a wedding with time to kill; two young couples on a “lunch and learn” double date; an elderly couple who’ve lived in Mentor for “longer than you think” and have never been to the President’s house before; a woman who used to work at a museum in New York and recently moved here; and so many more. Sometimes they’re so excited to be here that the questions start in the book store – which book is the best, where is Garfield buried, and can I get this cute t-shirt in a smaller size? Some visitors are stoic, taking in the exhibits and reading the signs quietly to themselves. Others might not have a passion for history and have accompanied a friend or family member – but that doesn’t mean we don’t try and excite them anyway! We want nothing more than for you to share our love of history and ask a question or two.

When there aren’t any visitors around, though, we are left to reflect and perform our individual tasks in an environment almost staggering to anyone who enjoys times gone by. Sometimes you can hear a pin drop as Ranger Alan works on his next talk while Ranger Scott plans the next Civil War Encampment and Volunteer Andrew gets together details for the next “Friends of James A. Garfield NHS” group meeting. Meanwhile, I sneak around with my camera, snapping pictures of the President’s home, the occasional squirrel, and whatever Ranger or Volunteer I can surprise. Other times though the atmosphere is crackling with conversation. Stimulating discussion about what we think Garfield’s opinion may or may not have been on a given topic… or maybe how frustrating the last Indians game was to watch. There’s never a lack of information to absorb!

Some days here can be aptly described as controlled chaos. With visitors coming and going, Volunteers guiding tours, and Rangers and Administrative staff handling the day-to-day operations, there’s always something going on. But that’s why the word “controlled” is more important than “chaos”. Because it’s certainly not directionless energy. There might be a new exhibit going up. A new program being announced. Or maybe even a Garfield family member coming in today. And while I can’t think of one good word to describe it, the staff has managed to cobble together a feeling of sober joviality. An oxymoron perhaps, that fits because our whole situation here is a bit of an oxymoron. After all, aren’t most historians supposed to be stuffy types, looking down their noses at you through their spectacles (never glasses)? Not outgoing, witty jokesters.

Volunteers perform a wide range of duties at James A. Garfield NHS.  Here, Volunteer Dave Lintern (left) leads a presidential trivia game for kids during a recent Presidents Day event.  (NPS image)

Volunteers perform a wide range of duties at James A. Garfield NHS. Here, Volunteer Dave Lintern (left) leads a presidential trivia game for kids during a recent Presidents Day event. (NPS image)

Who am I to make these observations? I am a Volunteer. I’ve learned over time that this means different things to different people. For some, a volunteer is that guy in the yellow vest that waves you into the parking lot at a church carnival. Or maybe that lady at the hospital who tells you where the bathroom is. For me, volunteering is much more than that. After all, what resource is more precious than time itself? We can’t get it back when we give it… we never seem to have enough… and it always seems to fly by. I give of my time freely for the benefit of those I interact with: the visitors and the Rangers and the other Volunteers. It’s safely said that all of us here are very much people-oriented and love a good conversation with anyone – whether you’re asking about how James A. Garfield died or perhaps where is the nearest restaurant. And the Rangers… well, they’re a special group that I, for one, feel privileged to know. I’ve never met a group of people so determined to do so much with what little they have to work with. And they keep positive. Educate. Laugh. And move on.

If you’ve never experienced what it is like to volunteer your time to a worthy cause, I encourage you to do so. To feel like what you did, by your own choice, without the motivation of money, did some good somewhere. Where a compliment from a visitor is worth more than your job could pay you. Where the feeling of accomplishment when the day is done makes it all worthwhile. And the appreciation you feel for having given of yourself brings you back to do it all over again.

James A. Garfield NHS Volunteers often take field trips to other local attractions and museums to see how other facilities operate.  Here, Volunteers join a Park Ranger on a visit to various locations around the city of Mentor, Ohio.  (NPS image)

James A. Garfield NHS Volunteers often take field trips to other local attractions and museums to see how other facilities operate. Here, Volunteers join a Park Ranger on a visit to various locations around the city of Mentor, Ohio. (NPS image)

And so from my computer in the office, with Ranger Alan’s thermos at my elbow, and Ranger Joan discussing the highlights of the last Browns game, I proudly say:

I am a Volunteer.

-Andy Curtiss, Volunteer

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3 thoughts on “I am a Volunteer

  1. Andy, reading your article. while preparing to share the Christmas holiday with family and friends in my hometown of Baltimore, was pure delight! Your penultimate paragraph – don’t you love big words?! – says it all. Those thoughts and sentiments should be part of each day of our lives – at work, at home, at play, and while volunteering. Super piece of writing!

  2. Loved this, Andy!! You have captured the Volunteer experience so perfectly. I began as a VIP at JAGNHS in 1994 and hope to do it again someday soon – just for the reasons you mentioned.

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