While I wait here in Chicago for my medical fun to begin (June 1st is my new surgery date), I thought I’d start catching the blog up on my time spent in New Mexico volunteering earlier this Spring.
When I arrived to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in mid-March, Spring had yet to arrive to central New Mexico’s elevation of 4,500 feet…and I had yet to learn whether this volunteer RVing lifestyle would be all I had hoped it would be. Would it feel like a J-O-B? Would I get bored? Would I fit in with others working the Refuge? Would I learn the vast amount of necessary information quickly enough to become an effective resource to visitors? Would I want to continue doing volunteer gigs like this in the future?
It didn’t take long for Spring to “spring” or for me to get the answers to all of these burning questions!
One of my main goals for 2015 was to try out volunteering at a National Park or Wildlife Refuge. When planning my early retirement, a big component was to do volunteer work about 6 months a year to give my post-work life a meaningful focus, as well as keep expenses minimized until SS and Medicare kick in.
So this past winter, I started doing searches every couple of days of federal volunteer listings on Volunteer.gov. This website doesn’t have every available opening (some require that you still inquire directly to each individual park), but more and more resources are now using Volunteer.org, so it’s an excellent place to start your job hunt.
The site has a nifty search filter called “Housing/Amenities” that allows you to narrow search results to only those offering an RV Site, and another filter can just show new listings, so it was easy to check every few days to see what new opportunities were out there.
When I saw the posting from Bosque in need of a Visitor Services volunteer for March to June, it seemed like an ideal first “resident volunteer” position. Bosque has one of the largest volunteer operations in the Refuge System, so here I’d be “one of many” rather than the sole volunteer the refuge would be relying on —a much safer bet for them, and a much better learning opportunity for me!
Within a few weeks of submitting my application and volunteer resume’, the Bosque Volunteer Coordinator phoned my references and, to my delight, offered me the position!
Many volunteer assignments (particular with the National Park Service) want solo volunteers to work 32/hours a week, but there are still a number of National Wildlife Refuges that only request 24 hours. Bosque del Apache was one of them! It’s not that I’d mind working 4 days rather than 3, but this being my first job, I wanted to have the extra flexibility in case it wasn’t a great fit.
Another challenge can be remoteness of the park or refuge. Is there cell coverage and/or high-speed wifi? How far away is a full-sized grocery store? Where’s the closest Wal-Mart? Gas Station? Hair Salon? Hospital? Are there interesting things to see and do on days off that are within a 1 to 2 hours’ drive? .
Bosque met all of those requirements with flying colors. Located along I-25 in central New Mexico, the RV sites at Bosque are far enough from the highway to not hear road noise, but still close enough to enjoy high-speed cell coverage!
The small town of San Antonio boasts a trio of great restaurants and the main hub for all other services, Socorro, is just under 20 miles away. Socorro is home to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and proudly sports a big white “M” on the mountain shadowing over the town (appropriately called “M” mountain by the locals).
Socorro might not be as hip or colorful as some of New Mexico’s other small, funky towns, but I really enjoyed the warm, down-to-earth, friendly people and the full array of services available there. I’ll also be forever grateful for the town square’s lush green grass that gave Millie such a perfect spot to enjoy her final afternoon.
My home at Bosque was the 18-site Volunteer RV park Village located behind the Visitor Center. While I could have my pick of many available sites, the Volunteer Coordinator suggested a site close to the Lounge building—less chance of pack rats during the final month of cold nights, and less chance of snakes seeking cool shade during the hotter days to come! Sold! I’ll take the spot closest to the Lounge!
Many refuges have a central building for volunteer and employee use—often it houses just laundry facilities, and perhaps a fridge, freezer, and small social area. In comparison, I’m guessing that Bosque’s Lounge ranks as the Ritz of the Refuge System! Take a look--
We volunteers enjoyed new Maytag washers & dryers, a full-sized commercial kitchen and fridge, large freezer, an ice maker, a covered patio with gas grill, a large living room with sofas, chairs & tables, a new 55” flat-screen TV with DVD player to watch movies, a large lending library of books and DVDs, a computer workstation, WiFi, a piano, pool table, and even a sauna! There was also a large outdoor fire pit with chairs (and lots of firewood) for group campfires on those cool, wind-free nights. Deluxe accommodations for sure!
Each volunteer is provided a few polo shirts, name tag, vest, hat, and jacket for use while working at the Refuge. The volunteer provides their own pants or shorts, and sturdy close-toed shoes. Here’s what I looked like when “on the job”:
Being a highly-visited Refuge with many volunteers, Bosque’s volunteer roles tend to be more segmented than at other refuges. Most of us worked Visitor Services which meant staffing the Visitors Center and “roving” the refuge to assist visitors and/or spot wildlife in the field. Others volunteers worked maintenance and custodial jobs, and a few others served as interpretive naturalists (leading Refuge tours).
As a Visitor Services volunteer, I was assigned (usually with a fellow volunteer) to work the Visitor Center 3 days a week from 7:30am to 4:30pm with an hour for lunch. Since the VC is only a minute’s walk from the RVs, volunteers could easily eat lunch at home.
Our indoor work location was nearly as beautiful as the outdoor spots! Bosque’s VC is only a few years old.
We VC volunteers were charged with opening and closing the Visitor Center and public restroom buildings, reconciling the cash register, turning all the exhibits on/off, raising and lowering the flag, filling the bird feeders, logging data from the Refuge’s weather station, and logging all bird sightings into the eBird kiosk. A separate team of local employees and volunteers ran the Nature Store, so we never had to worry about that end of things.
Since there was usually someone else working the custodial duties, we didn’t have to do any heavy-duty floor mopping or toilet cleaning—just light “touch ups” to keep the VC tidy, and restock TP in the restrooms if needed.
With multiple volunteers working the VC, this allowed for a nice variety of duties to make each day interesting. While one worked the main information desk at the VC answering questions from visitors, collecting entrance fees, and issuing federal passes…
the other volunteer would be out “roving” the refuge. Roving involved driving one of the official white government vehicles to make sure all trailheads and information kiosks had brochures and were free of litter, greeting visitors and answering questions, assisting naturalists and/or staff with tours, and observing where wildlife was and whether any new species had arrived or left. Morning rovers also got to drive to the post office to collect the day’s mail for the refuge. Always a fun trip! After lunch, the roles would reverse—the rover would work the VC desk, and VC person would go out to rove.
So, after 6 weeks at Bosque, what answers did I come up with to my original questions?
- It never felt like a J-O-B, and was never, ever boring! The work was highly educational, fun, and visitors were always friendly and appreciative of whatever assistance I could give them. The Refuge staff and managers were terrific too—dedicated leaders, fun to work with, and always grateful for each volunteer’s service to the Refuge.
- I felt very much “at home” and at ease living and working at a wildlife refuge. I enjoyed my fellow volunteers and think they enjoyed spending time with me too (both on and off the job). I also relished the opportunity to observe a natural habitat daily over the course of a season. It was good to be still to watch and listen to nature for more than just the week or two at a time that is so common for full-time RVers.
- Would I do it again? Absolutely! I’ve already promised Bosque I’ll be back this Fall to finish what I started (assuming my medical stuff gets resolved this summer so it won’t interfere again).
Bosque is known for its migratory birds and waterfowl, so coming to the refuge as a non-birder felt pretty intimidating. But with the help of some really excellent (and patient!) senior naturalists, and continued study, I soon began to learn and identify more and more birds and other wildlife species.
I dare say I’ve now become a bona-fide “birder” and am completely addicted to my Sibley Guide and eBird observations! I’m still nowhere near being an expert, but have increased my knowledge tremendously in the past few months and continue to do so here in Illinois. I’m making good progress!
I’ll share my bird and wildlife photos in the next posts.