Veteran Volunteers

Out & About’s volunteerism series is being developed in cooperation with the state Office of Volunteerism, and we hope it will show readers how they can improve their communities by volunteering their time and talents. For information about volunteering opportunities throughout the state, visit VolunteerDelaware.orgFor more information about volunteering in Delaware state parks, go to destateparks.com, and click on the link to Volunteering & Friends’ Groups. That page includes links to more information about the Veterans Conservation Corps and the various Friends’ organizations. Visitors to Facebook can also find pages for the Delaware State Parks Veterans Conservation Corps and Friends of Wilmington Parks.

A unit of the State Parks system gives vets and their kin a chance to learn skills that can lead to new careers

At one time or another during their search, jobseekers have often heard that volunteering for an organization that matches their career interests can open the door to a paying position.

For military veterans and their families, a program in Delaware is proving the validity of that axiom.

The Veterans Conservation Corps, a unit of the Delaware State Parks system, is giving veterans and their kin a chance to learn skills that can lead to new careers.

Now in its third year, the program has trained 35 volunteers, and five of them have moved into fulltime positions as State Parks employees, while others are finding work in environmental fields, according to Karen Minner, the program director.

“Veterans, especially those who are transitioning back to civilian life, can have trouble finding work,” Minner says, “even though they have a strong work ethic. They like to complete the mission, to get the job done.”

As a military spouse, Minner understood the situation well. “I knew that a lot of work needed to be done in the parks, and being out in nature has a healing property about it when it comes to mental health, so I thought veterans would benefit from working on environmental projects,” she says.

So, three years ago she wrote a grant application to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency through which AmeriCorps national service programs are funded. The one-year grant allowed her to bring five volunteers on board. Seeing the success of the program’s first year, she applied for larger grants for 2016-17 and 2017-18, winning approval for 15 volunteers each year. For 2018-19, she’s hoping for another expansion, this time to 20 volunteers.

Participants in AmeriCorps programs are considered volunteers, Minner explains, but they essentially work fulltime for 11 months. For their service, they receive a cost-of-living stipend and health insurance, plus an education award, which can be used to pay tuition or to pay off college loans, if they complete their service. 

In addition to veterans, the grant guidelines permit the hiring of their sons, daughters and spouses, as well as the sons, daughters and spouses of current military personnel, Minner says.

Gary Focht, Earl Bowman and Ian Silva take a break from building trails.

 

“Being in the military, I was always outside,” says Mark Kammer, a 54-year-old Magnolia resident who served in the Army for 26 years, including tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he was wounded in 2003. When he learned about the program in 2015, he immediately thought, “I could dig this, being out in the woods.”

Kammer applied, became one of the first participants, and, at the end of his volunteer term, landed a “fulltime seasonal” position with the State Parks system. He’s now the supervisor of the southern team of the Veterans Conservation Corps, a group of AmeriCorps volunteers who works primarily at state parks in Kent and Sussex counties.

The team’s tasks are varied, Kammer says. Recent projects have included repairing damaged boardwalks, helping to manage hunts to control the deer population, installing fencing to protect turtles at Delaware Seashore State Park during the mating season, and removing invasive species from parklands.

During the spring and summer, his team’s efforts tend to be concentrated on clearing new park trails and keeping existing trails clean.

“It’s great work, and by being in the parks, I feel like I’m giving back,” Kammer says.

During his training period, Kammer picked up several certifications, including for the use of chainsaws and to serve as an interpretive guide in the parks. More significantly, he went through wildfire training and learned enough to be called upon in 2016 and 2017 to fight fires in Colorado and Idaho.

“In the past I had watched the wildfires out west [on television] and I thought fighting them would be pretty cool,” Kammer says. Now that he’s had that experience twice, he’s expecting to be called upon again if more break out later this year.

Earl Bowman of Smyrna became a member of the Veterans Conservation Corps a year after Kammer, and it took him exactly one day to realize he had found his niche.

After serving two years in the Delaware Air National Guard, Bowman, 26, was working as a driver for a non-emergency ambulance service in 2016 but was becoming frustrated because he didn’t see much opportunity for advancement. At his mother’s suggestion, he applied for the program.

That October, with other candidates, he went on what he described as “a one-day tryout” at Killens Pond State Park near Felton.

“We’re in a training exercise on how to remove invasive plants, and some person walks by and says, ‘you people do amazing work.’ To think that someone you didn’t know would walk up and say that to you, I just realized the importance of what I would be doing,” Bowman says.

He spent the first half of his volunteer term on the southern team before moving onto the northern team in March of 2017. He made a strong impression on park supervisors and landed a fulltime seasonal position last August, starting work the day after his volunteer tour ended.

Now he’s supervising the northern team, whose recent projects have included building a new trail at White Clay Creek State Park near Newark.

“It’s been fun,” he says, “and it’s something different almost every day.”

Bowman has received numerous awards for his exceptional service, Minner says, including a citation as National Conservation Corps Member of the Year.

Lela Otto, who serves as program manager for the conservation corps, takes pride in her work in setting up training for the veterans and makes sure they meet all the requirements of their volunteer commitment. The most satisfying aspect of her job, she says, “is watching veterans blossom. They become more proud of themselves as they get to where they want to be.”

Veterans live with a lot of demons, Minner says. “Most have seen horrific things [in combat] and the Veterans Administration can be a monster to deal with sometimes,” she says, “so working in the parks can be very therapeutic for them.”

Kammer is grateful for the opportunities the conservation corps has offered him as he creates a post-military career.

“With this program,” he says, “the state parks people will point you in the right direction.”

Friends of Wilmington Parks

If you’re looking to make friends, why not join a friends group, especially one that supports a program that matches your interests?

You can find friends groups in many areas. Those that support libraries, parks and museums are among the most common.

“We do the things that the state doesn’t have the time or the money in its budget to do,” says Michael Melloy, interim executive director of Friends of Wilmington Parks, echoing a refrain commonly expressed by leaders of these organizations.

The nonprofit group covers a massive swath of park acreage, supporting activities at Brandywine Park, Rockford Park, Alapocas Run State Park, H. Fletcher Brown Park and along Kentmere Parkway.

Michael Melloy, Ellen Muenter and Dave Thompson of Friends of Wilmington Parks work in the Jasper Crane Rose Garden in Brandywine Park.

Together these sites are sometimes called “the Bancroft Parks,” in recognition of William Poole Bancroft, the 19th-century Wilmington industrialist and conservationist who donated some 200 acres as parkland within the city and at least 1,300 acres north of the city in the Brandywine Valley.

Members of the Friends group put in more than 1,600 volunteer hours last year, and they’re on track to top 2,000 hours in 2018, Melloy says.

Key projects include working in Brandywine Park’s Jasper Crane Rose Garden, removing invasive plant growths and welcoming visitors to events at the parks, including those sponsored by the Friends.

The Friends’ rose garden team has about 20 members, according to its leader, Ellen Muenter of Chadds Ford. April and May are the team’s busiest months, with plenty of weeding, pruning, mulching and landscaping to do before the Friends’ largest fundraiser, the annual Jasper Crane Rose Garden Party, scheduled this year for 5-8 p.m. on Thursday, June 8.

Maintaining the garden is practically a year-round activity, with an ongoing need for “deadheading”—cutting off the dead flowers so new ones can bloom, says Muenter, who has been volunteering with the Friends for four years.

“Those roses can be little prima donnas,” she says.

Some of the Friends’ most significant habitat restoration work took place last spring, when another 20 volunteers spent parts of 13 days clearing an area at the foot of Rattlesnake Run in Brandywine Park. Much of the project involved removing invasive ivy from the lower three feet of trees, Melloy said.

While a love of gardening and the outdoors motivates many members of the organization, not all of the volunteer work requires getting down and dirty, Melloy says.

This summer, in collaboration with Gable Music Ventures, the Friends are sponsoring nine free summer concerts in Rockford Park (Mondays from 6:30 to 8 p.m.) and 10 free summer concerts at the Sugar Bowl Pavilion in Brandywine Park (Wednesdays from 6:30 to 8 p.m.), as well as four Foodie Fridays at the Blue Ball Barn in Alapocas Run State Park. Friends volunteers will serve as hosts for all these events.

“Two years ago, we went from six events to 55, and this year we’ll have more than 100,” Melloy says. “We’re growing, and we’ve got great volunteers, but we will always welcome more.”

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