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Park Host Volunteers Loving Seasonal Assignment
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Park Host Jill Weise assists Julian Bustillos, 3, of Modesto with a loaner life jacket as his father Erik Bustillos looks on. The loaner program is sponsored by the US Army Corps of Engineers for river safety. RICHARD PALOMA/The Times

They’re easy to spot. Happy faces, willing to help and full of knowledge, the US Army Corps of Engineers’ park hosts are a vital resource to the overall functioning of the Stanislaus River Parks and keeping them open in tough budgetary times.

At the McHenry Recreation Area, just outside the Escalon city limits, Virginia Palmer and Brian Williams are one of the two pairs of hosts that greet visitors pulling into the park to enjoy the recreation area.

“The best part is meeting different types of people and personalities,” said Palmer after assigning the last parking space of the popular park on River Road. “Being outside and seeing people have fun, I can’t see myself doing anything else right now in life.”

Both Palmer and Williams are retired from the Oregon area and “just fell into” their roles at McHenry Recreation area.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which oversees the parks and park host volunteers, more than 5,000 volunteers donated 91,000 hours of service at Sacramento District parks in the past year, adding their personal touch to make visitors’ outdoor experiences truly enjoyable.

Many of the park volunteers, especially the campground hosts, are retirees like Palmer and Williams who have decided to live in their motor homes full time.

In exchange for their service, the Corps allows them to live on the grounds at no cost and provides water, electrical, and sewer hook ups.

These campground hosts don’t ‘rough it’ by most people’s standards. They have satellite network for television in their RV and have Internet where they stay active in the digital RV volunteer community where they share ideas and reviews about the various parks.

Palmer said she also gets enjoyment from passing out “goodie bags” as gifts to the children when they return the life jackets they borrow at the park.

“We’re the eyes and ears of the park,” Williams said. “With us here the rangers can do their job.”

In addition to park caretaking of some clean up duties, parking control, and after hours security, park hosts also manage the free life jacket loaner program available to anyone who visits.

Though they are only expected to volunteer four hours a day, the hosts said they commonly give more time because of the delight of the assignment.

Jill Weise, a retired state children’s social worker, and her husband Tim have been assigned to McHenry Recreation Area for the last three months.

“This is our first adventure,” said Weise. “We love this environment and have found it to be a very pleasurable experience.

The couple found the volunteer job as a park host on the website

Frank and Linda Strehle, previous campground hosts at Stanislaus River Parks in Knights Ferry, no longer own a brick-and-mortar home and have lived in their RV since retiring 10 years ago.

They have always valued serving others. Frank and Linda met in the Navy when she was a nurse and he was a corpsman. Frank was a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer for 10 years and also helped in anti-gang programs. The Strehles have volunteered at numerous park systems across the nation, ranging from a wildlife refuge in Idaho, an excursion train in Cordele, Ga., and even an historic grist mill in San Antonio, Texas. They have a particular love for interpretive educational programs where they can interact with young people.

“At Knights Ferry, we have presented a program for students where we explained the history of the area and how the covered bridge is unique,” said Frank.

“As a camp host, I think the challenge is to let campers know that you are there to be helpful and establish a relationship with them while not being intrusive,” said Linda.

The fulltime RV lifestyle wasn’t a difficult adjustment for them.

“We used to spend a lot of time on our boat, so we were used to living and cooking in limited space,” said Linda. “We have always loved road trip vacations … which our kids used to love to complain about.”

Nowadays their grandkids plan vacations in order to visit Frank and Linda on the road.

“Our favorite spot for that is Knights Ferry,” said Linda. “The kids can visit us here and also take in some spring skiing and trips to San Francisco.”

The Strehles have already scheduled their westward swing for 2014 when they’re scheduled to be in New Mexico, Idaho and then back at Stanislaus River Parks for the close of the year.


US Army Corps of Engineers Director Robert Kidd contributed to this report.