Recruiting Selfless Services

By Jennifer Smith
Photos Courtesy Of Oakland County Parks and Recreation

To save on staff costs and expand programming and special events, Oakland County Parks and Recreation (OCPR) in Southeast Michigan began a volunteer program in 2011. Today, the 13-park system utilizes the talents of more than 700 volunteers.

Last year, 1.8-million guests visited the county parks. With only 65 full-time and 600 seasonal staff, volunteers are invaluable to the success of enhancing existing programs and special events, and developing new offerings.

Under the direction of a full-time volunteer coordinator, the program blossomed. In 2013, volunteers donated a total of 22,872 hours, valued at a savings of $506,391.

“The volunteer program alleviates cost for the organization, but more than that, it establishes and builds relationships,” says Terry Fields, chief of recreation programs and services.

How does the parks system recruit so many volunteers? While its website, social media, email, and collaboration with local schools and businesses have helped, word of mouth has really attracted people’s interest in the program.

“Volunteerism is also becoming an important component of the way we do business. We are learning that not only do we benefit greatly from their time and expertise, but that these individuals are also some of our biggest advocates,” says OCPR Executive Officer Dan Stencil. “They literally sell the parks system, based on their involvement as volunteers.”

For example, in 2011, adding a horticulture program at the Waterford Oaks County Park greenhouse spiked the volunteer count to nearly 400, an increase of more than 100 in less than a year.

“People generally have an easier time trying something new if it’s recommended by someone they know and trust,” Stencil says. “We encourage current volunteers to spread the word about our efforts among their friends.”

Perhaps part of the reason the volunteer program is so successful is because there is something for everyone. The volunteer program has four components. Volunteers can choose to work a weekly shift at a golf course, a campground, or as a gatekeeper at one of three dog parks. If a weekly shift doesn’t work out, volunteers can choose general programs or special events where there are specific dates to assist.

Interested participants can choose to volunteer in a variety of programs, from adaptive recreation to maintaining the beauty of trails, gardening, special events, and more.

Potential volunteers can find out the available opportunities and print out the application from the website, fill it out, and send it in for review.

“Whether individuals seek out the volunteer program because they have a passion for nature, or groups of high school students help out at a one-time event as a community-service requirement, it’s important that they are matched to opportunities based on their skills, interests, and level of time they are able to commit,” Fields says.

Special events rely heavily on the help of volunteers. In March 2013, the Great Marshmallow Drop at Catalpa Oaks County Park drew approximately 7,000 participants, an increase of 1,500 from the previous year.

More than 200 volunteers assisted with the event, featuring 15,000 marshmallows dropped via helicopter onto throngs of children below.

For the annual 3-day, outdoor Fire and Ice Festival, OCPR turned a city street into a tubing hill, collaborated with the local fire department to create an ice rink, and hosted snowshoeing and cross-country ski clinics. More than 200 volunteers braved the winter’s chill to make this event possible for 70,000 people.

For one-time events, volunteers are given a condensed training session onsite. Those who want to help with ongoing programs are required to attend a more extensive orientation where they learn about the parks system, and receive an overview of the numerous volunteer opportunities, expectations, and the process of recording volunteer time so they can earn benefits. If they decide to volunteer on a regular basis, they receive name badges and an official T-shirt.

“When volunteers feel taken care of and are trained so they know what they are going to do before they get there, they enjoy themselves and keep coming back to help,” Fields says.

“We wanted to give volunteers the chance to recreate and enjoy the parks system, so we implemented a volunteer recognition program that rewards ongoing volunteers for their time, talents, and efforts with each hour of volunteer service counting toward recreation opportunities,” Stencil says.

After 20 hours of service, volunteers receive a voucher to redeem for an annual vehicle permit ($30 value). After 35 hours, they receive 25 recreation points—a value of $25 to spend at facilities for waterpark admission, camping, golfing, and boat rentals. After 60 hours, they receive 50 recreation points—a value of $50 to spend. And 100 hours, they net 100 recreation points—a value of $100.

Hours accumulate on the same calendar as the fiscal year, which runs from October 1 through September 30. Volunteer hours are reset to zero at the beginning of each fiscal year. Volunteer recreation points, however, do not expire if volunteers remain active.

“This point system helps us too because it gives our volunteers the opportunities to get to know our parks system better and promote our different parks and programs. It’s a win-win for all of us,” Stencil says.

Volunteer hours are tracked to report on individual efforts, provide input for rewards and recognition, and identify future opportunities for program expansion. Volunteer time includes mandatory trainings and meetings, as well as the time during which services are provided at the program or facility.

Additionally, some volunteer opportunities earn different rewards than those in the regular program. For example, golf volunteers are rewarded for every 2 hours of service with 2 hours of golf and cart use. When campground hosts serve 24 hours a month, the system offers half-off camping fees toward an overnight stay.

OCPR also participates in National Volunteer Week every April. Current volunteers receive discounts and free passes from many local organizations, including the Detroit Science Center, Detroit Zoo, and The Henry Ford and Cranbrook Institute of Science. OCPR reciprocates by allowing free park entry to park volunteers and volunteers from other organizations.

Kathy and Fred Uchman have turned volunteering into date night by making a commitment to give back to the park system they love. They both help at Wint Nature Center, where Kathy is a trained trail guide and Fred is a master craftsman who designs and builds birdfeeders and display materials.

“You might find them helping with the autumn hayride event at Wint, volunteering at special events, or marching in a community parade. Kathy and Fred do not stop volunteering when they take off their volunteer shirt and name badge; they are volunteers 24/7, singing the praises of the parks system,” Recreation Program Supervisor Lynn Conover says.

The overwhelming response and enduring loyalty of volunteers confirms OCPR’s role in the community. Each volunteer brings a unique perspective and skillset that contributes greatly to the success of the park system.

“Volunteers return each year because they feel valued, recognized, and supported. A smile and a thank-you go a long way. Customer service is internal and external,” Fields says. “If you give good customer service to staff and volunteers, they will in turn provide it to the public. Everyone should receive the message that what they do matters.”

For more information on the volunteer program, volunteer applications, a monthly volunteer time sheet, and upcoming volunteer opportunities, visit

Jennifer Smith is a Technical Aide for the Communications & Marketing Department for the Oakland County Parks in Michigan. Reach her at (248) 858-4928, or .