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Park Host Volunteers Serve As Army Corps Eyes And Ears
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The sign posted at the entrance to McHenry Recreation Area recently showed how much faster than normal the river is running and stated the requirement for wearing life jackets. - photo by Marg Jackson/The Leader
Sometimes the most important job or person is overlooked until you realize without them — you’d be in hot water, or as in the case of the Stanislaus River: frigid, rushing, and dangerous water.
For many years the US Army Corps of Engineers hired park hosts to be the eyes and ears at the recreation parks near the Stanislaus River but budget cuts axed the program until Norm Winchester, a natural resource specialist with the Corps, brought it back to life with the power of volunteers.
“At one time it was a paid contract that lasted from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Winchester said. “But that changed when the money got tight.”
Winchester knew the importance of the program, so he turned the park host position into a volunteer one and marketed it to retirees who are enjoying travel in their golden years.
But before you think just about anyone can do this job, applicants are put through a rigorous background check and must be fit mentally and physically before their names are put into a government clearinghouse that provides volunteers for all branches of the government from the Army Corps to the US Forest Service.
“If they check out and fit what we’re looking for, we schedule them for three to four months at a time,” Winchester said.
There are approximately 25-30 hosts who rotate from place to place around the country; most are retired but not all.
“If they make the clearinghouse, they can come from all around the country. Most use these programs as an opportunity to move around the country in three to four increments. They’re able to travel and visit family and see a slice of the world while mitigating the cost of the travel.”
They arrive with their RVs or campers and help facilitate the various programs sponsored by the Army Corps, such as the life-jacket loaner program, and they’re also the eyes and ears in case of trouble.
And given the water conditions thus far, trouble could be right around the corner.
“The Stanislaus River is running at 2,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) and it’s extremely dangerous,” Winchester said. “We’re offering life vests for kids and adults for the day for free, all they have to do is ask for them.”
The park hosts also spend time talking with the people recreating on the river, to ensure they’re aware of the rules.
“We’re trying to take a proactive approach,” Winchester said.
In exchange for their time, volunteers are given a beautiful spot with a panoramic view, phone, water, and power that otherwise they would’ve had to pay for at an RV park or campground.
“We’re saving them about $500-600 a month for their needs,” Winchester said.
And, apparently, that’s a pretty good gig, because if you’re interested in getting in on this action, you’ll have to wait in line.
“It’s a very popular program. We’re booked a year and a half in advance,” Winchester admitted.
There are five sites in four US Army Corps owned parks. Those are: two at McHenry Avenue, one at Valley Oak, one at Orange Blossom Recreation Park, and one at Knights Ferry, where the volunteers also man the visitor’s center on weekends.
Each park has its own “personality” said Winchester, and some are easier to staff than others.
For example, the idyllic area of Knights Ferry with its historic bridge and quaint town draws a different crowd than McHenry Avenue, which is closer to the urban area.
“McHenry Avenue is so close to the urban area, we see a lot more drinkers and gang bangers; up river you see more families,” Winchester said.
Currently the park hosts installed at the various parks are: Gevenne and Jerry Johnson (McHenry Avenue, site “A”), James and Diane Swatzell (McHenry Avenue, site “B”), Robert and Karen Kelly (Knights Ferry), Dave and Kay Austin (Orange Blossom Road), James and Laura Lee (Valley Oak).
Jacob Myers Park is a property owned by the Corps but undeveloped so there is no host through that agency, however the park is leased to the City of Riverbank — which provides a host there — and regularly patrolled by Sheriff’s Deputies.
Some of the park hosts are CPR-certified but they are not required to have this training to be hosts. If a park host encounters trouble on the river, they are instructed to call 911 and then the Corps.