Great Volunteers are the Key to Great Parks


Volunteers have been an important part of the park district for its entire 85-year history. Running in its current format since 1978, the volunteer program has grown steadily along with the park district. Today, more than 700 volunteers give their time and talents, helping out in practically every department, from stuffing mailers with Marketing to monitoring water quality with the Natural Resources Division. Some volunteers have been with Great Parks only a few weeks, while others have stuck around for decades. Recently, we celebrated four volunteers who reached their 35-year anniversary with us.

Helping others just comes naturally to volunteer Dot Topper. She’s headed committees and served on boards for a lot of organizations over the years. Yet, Great Parks is her main focus. And after spending a career working inside, Dot revels in the challenge and opportunity of working outdoors at Shaker Trace Nursery in Miami Whitewater Forest. She says that she likes seeing the whole life cycle of plants from seed to harvest, since “it’s a little bit of giving back to future generations.”


Steve Wagner also believes in the importance of leaving a legacy. His reason for volunteering is simple: “I love the parks, and I love to learn more. I want to give back to people and encourage others to get out and enjoy the outdoors.” An avid birder, Steve currently serves as coordinator of the Bluebird Box Monitoring Program. Steve, along with his wife Donna, who has been a volunteer herself for more than 20 years, has done a little bit of everything for the parks. His favorite memory, though, was the winter he and his brother participated in the Great Parks bird count when it was 24 degrees below zero.


As Vice President of the Society of Northwest Longhunters historical reenactment group, Randy Bales spends the majority of his time in Great Parks portraying a Native American during different historical programs. Randy was part of the original Explorer Branch volunteers (described as “an older version of boy scouts”) and the only volunteer who stayed on when it was replaced by the new volunteer program. Admitting that he’s always been into nature, he says he continues to volunteer because, “everyone is a pleasure to work with, and it’s always fun to be out there.”


Jim Meiser only has a year of service on his wife Mary Ann, a volunteer for 34 years, so it’s no surprise that the parks are a huge part of their lives. Over the years, Jim has volunteered all over, and was even part of the original brainstorming groups for Nature’s Niche gift shop and the popular Maple Sugar Days program. Jim and Mary Ann have formed life-long bonds with other long-term volunteers. He says, “A lot of people I consider my friends, I’ve met at the parks.” You can usually find him at Sharon Woods doing stream monitoring, because “it’s a pleasure to work with the staff – it’s half the fun!”


The skills, knowledge and dedication shared by our long-term volunteers are truly invaluable to Great Parks and all its guests. They all share a love of the outdoors and a passion for passing that love on to others, bringing a better experience to everyone who enters the parks. So the next time you see a blue Great Parks shirt with “Volunteer” on the chest, please take a moment to thank them for all their hard work!