Green Investment – Volunteerism

Green Investment is an occasional series about the positive impact of Ottawa County parks on the quality of life in West Michigan, presented by the Ottawa County Parks Foundation. This is the first story in the series. 

Volunteers give and get benefits in Ottawa Parks

By Ben Beversluis, Ottawa County Parks Foundation

Whether hiking a trail to check for downed trees or learning about vernal ponds in a seminar, Tom Galetto and John Gervais find plenty to do as volunteers in the Ottawa County park system.

They have a great time enjoying the parks while also working in them — but the parks system and its thousands of guests get so much more from the 2,000 or so people who volunteer up to 10,000 hours of labor each year to enhance the Ottawa Parks experience.

“We have a generous, philanthropic community,” said Melanie Manion, who oversees volunteer activities. “It’s just wonderful what volunteers can do.”

What volunteers do includes finding fairy shrimp and spotted salamander eggs in the springtime vernal pools on a recent Friday morning. As park stewards, Galetto and Gervais pick up a variety of skills while learning to help the parks.

“I’ve got time, I enjoy being outdoors, the parks are a beautiful place to be, and in this way, I’ve been able to see parks and go to parks I otherwise would not have gone to,” said Galetto, a retired Grand Haven resident. “And I’m learning some things about the outdoors that I never really knew, including this workshop.”

Gervais and his wife moved to Holland after he retired from the military. He soon found his volunteer niche as a park monitor and doing historical canoe presentations with school children.

“It gives the kids a good foundation for appreciation of the natural beauty of the area here,” he said, pointing out a lot of the places he was stationed, “there was really nothing there. And there’s so much here, there’s such diversity and natural beauty.”

He figures his labor as a steward saves tax dollars.

“It’s not cost effective for them to pay someone to go out and check the trails, so that’s what we do,” he said. “It’s a more efficient use of park resources, having volunteers take care of a lot of these things.”

The Parks Stewards program was launched to utilize services of volunteers who wanted to work on a regular schedule, explained Melanie Manion, natural resource management supervisor for Ottawa County Parks. Many are retired; others are Grand Valley State University natural resources management students gaining experience.

Stewards meet every Friday or every other Saturday, doing a variety of tasks in most any county park. The work has built a camaraderie among the stewards that extends beyond their park work to biking, trips and other fun activities, Manion noted.

Volunteers John Gervais searching for fairy shrimp and salamander eggs. Photo courtesy of Mike Lozon.

Projects range from maintaining bluebird houses to collecting wildflower and native plant seeds to propagate them in the parks. They might use a propane torch or the “glove of death” — a herbicide-soaked glove — to kill off unwanted invasives. Often, they find themselves deep in in remote areas of the parks the public typically doesn’t see.

In all, the Parks Department had over 2,000 volunteers involved in the parks in 2016 putting in around 10,000 hours.

“It’s just amazing what volunteers can do,” Manion said.

Multiple options for park participation

In addition to the Park Stewards program in which volunteers work in parks every week, Ottawa Parks offer a variety of other volunteer opportunities.

  • Volunteer work days, scheduled four times a year, offer one-time opportunities, usually to help eliminate wild garlic mustard or other invasives. The United Way Day of Caring brings groups into the parks. Businesses sign up for a work day of team building or to just give back. And people doing court-ordered community service also lend a hand.
  • Adopt-a-Park groups take responsibility for on-going chores and maintenance at a specific park. Some 17 groups have adopted parks already. Most are businesses, but schools like Black River have signed on as well.
  • A Tyson Foods team, the first to sign on, has grown into a skilled group, said Melanie Manion, natural resource management supervisor for Ottawa County Parks. “They don’t need instruction,” she said. “They just come back, and it’s just amazing how much they can get done in a short period.”
  • Park monitors check for downed trees, litter and otherwise keep an eye on things at a specific park. Some monitors help out at the Nature Education Center at Hemlock Crossing.
  • Other volunteers take on regular commitments, such as mowing park properties, or one-off projects, like a recent Eagle Scout project to install a sensory trail at Grand River Park for children with autism.