By Jenny Neyman
An event Friday at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center had all the hallmarks of a dating service.
There were introductions, telling stories, sharing laughter, giving a sense of priorities and areas of importance, discovering common interests and exchanging scheduling information, all to see if there was enough basis for a continued relationship.
“What we like to do is pair people with what sounds good to them, what kind of experience they want and just kind of get to know them and figure out where they’re going to fit,” said Matt Conner, chief of visitor services at the refuge.
Everyone involved seemed to be hitting it off and there was definitely mutual attraction. Not between refuge staff and the prospective volunteers who came to the orientation event to find out more about opportunities to help out at the refuge, but between everyone involved and the refuge itself.
“We love trail hiking, four-wheeling, snowmobiling, hunting, fishing, camping — anything that gets us outside and involved with wildlife and being able to enjoy that. And being out here next to the conservation, it’s really important to learn how it affects the natural resources and learning all these types of things, and protecting it for future kids, basically,” said Lisa Luna, who attended the event with her husband, Eric.
They’re new to the area, having come to work at the Kenai River Raven Lodge down Ski Hill Road from refuge headquarters. They want to get better integrated into their new community, and they’ve got the time to do it in the lodge’s winter offseason.
“We were new to the community so we wanted to get involved as much as we can, meet people, and also, getting involved in the community with other events. Because it is a small town, there’s not too much going on. You can’t be outdoors every day,” Eric said.
But they like to be outside as much as possible, making the refuge’s volunteer trail crew a possible great fit for Eric.
“We were interested in outdoor stuff, so they had a guy leaving this winter for cabin trail inspections and stuff like that, so that’s what we might get involved in,” he said.
Lisa is a natural people person. Combining that with her interest in ecology could make for a great greeter at the visitors center.
“Then, of course, they always need people here for the center — to host, people for the front desk. Especially in the winter, they say they have a smaller staff so they need people. Volunteers are probably one of their main resources they say they need,” she said.
Volunteers are needed in the sense of improving the refuge’s interface with the public, Connor said, but not in the sense of free labor to perform staff responsibilities.
“The ultimate goal of a good volunteer program is to enhance the experience for other visitors. So, they’re not doing it to make our jobs easier or take the work off of us, they’re doing it for the other folks who come to experience the refuge, (to make) their experience that much richer,” Connor said.
There are several opportunities to get involved, from inside work, like spending a few hours staffing the front desk at the visitors center, to outside jobs, like the trail crew.
“Folks who are willing to maybe go out and hike a few trails, let us know what needs to be done, what the conditions are, what’s the condition of some of the roads and those sorts of things,” he said.
The refuge also is forming a couple of committees, since volunteers generally enjoy the experience more when they get to work with other volunteers and have some autonomy and sense of ownership over a project, Connor said. One committee is helping plan the commemoration of the refuge’s 75th anniversary next year. Another is the Coffee Conversation Club, to help keep wood stocked for the high-efficiency wood furnace that helps heat the visitors center.
“They could maybe do a book of the month club, something that has to do with conservation. Maybe read a book about the refuge and sit around the fireplace, which they’ll help stoke and help get some wood for it, share what they thought about the book for that month, have some coffee, relax a little bit and then maybe spend a little time helping us get some wood put away for the winter,” he said.
The time commitment can vary. The refuge had a couple spend the entire summer on the Kenai helping out, but Connor said it can also be incredibly helpful to just spend a couple of hours a week.
One of Connor’s favorite volunteer stories is a man who spent three hours every Wednesday staffing the front desk at a refuge visitors center in Minnesota. That freed up the staff member, who taught environmental education, to take an additional class of students every week.
“He would joke and say, ‘Well I just sit here and tell folks about the trails. I’m not doing too much.’ I said, ‘No, you are teaching 60 kids a week environmental education yearlong, because that frees up the person to do it.’ So that’s a three-hour commitment once a week that meant the world to hundreds of students,” Connor said.
The refuge averages 40 to 50 volunteers throughout the year, Connor said, but winter is a great time to get started.
“You get in your summer season and you’re so busy it’s hard to kind of stop and say, ‘Let’s see if folks are interested and want to do stuff.’ So what this was was a very informal, relaxed way of someone who maybe wanted to volunteer but never had time to stop by or maybe didn’t approach someone at the front desk because they were so busy with visitors throughout the summer,” he said.
Anyone interested can stop by the visitors center on Ski Hill Road, open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.