Showing that history matters.
I've always been a trivia buff, and about four years ago, it got me into trouble. I was on an NPS-led bike tour on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., quietly sharing other facts I knew with my wife. One of the rangers finally said, “You know, if you're going to keep sharing facts like that you might as well volunteer with us." While I’m sure the comment was largely in jest, it sparked something in me. I never realized you could volunteer with the Park Service. Within two months, they had me in the yellow uniform, and I was hooked.
Ever since, I've been a "VIP" (Volunteers-in-Parks) at the National Mall & Memorial Parks. I have been honored to work at some of our nation’s most visited and most hallowed memorials. I've met soldiers who stormed the beaches at Iwo Jima, couples that marched with Dr. King, and family members who broke down crying at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I have been lucky enough to hear their stories and then re-tell them to the next generation, to the millions of students who come to D.C. to learn about their history. My job is not just to recite names and dates, but to bring these stories to life; to show visitors that history matters, and still affects our lives today.
As a volunteer, I represent the National Park Service just as much as any uniformed Park Ranger, maintenance worker, or law enforcement officer. This is why I was so saddened during the government shutdown. Without funding, the sites had to be closed to protect them for the enjoyment of future generations. I know some argued that the memorials should have remained open and would have been fine on their own. But I've seen firsthand the damage people can cause: In addition to giving tours, I often have to keep people out of the fountains at the FDR and WWII Memorials, ask people not to toss coins that damage our fountains, and pick up trash that's been tossed carelessly on the ground. While I hated that people weren't able to enjoy the parks, I would have hated it more to see irreparable damage done to any of these memorials.
Now that the shutdown has ended, my hope is Americans will see how much more support the national parks need. The rangers can't do it alone. I volunteer my time because the national parks have given me a great deal, and I wanted to give something back. I cherish the opportunity to work alongside such dedicated stewards of our memorials in D.C. So I encourage everyone to contact your nearest national park and see how you can volunteer. Whether you commit weekly like me, or just once a year, our national parks belong to all of us, and it's up to all of us to take care of them.
This blog post was originally printed in National Park Experience.