Amazing 24-Year Commitment to Volunteering



Karen Yochem, a volunteer of 24 years at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, has put in more than 18,821 volunteer hours. That is equivalent to 2,352 eight-hour work days and more than 9 years of full-time work. Karen is believed to be ranked number three in the country of most hours volunteered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Our dedicated volunteers gave an incredible 230,919 hours of their time to conservation in 2016. That is the equivalent of 28,864 eight-hour work days! These incredible folks deserve a huge thank you and during National Volunteer Week (April 23-29) we are aiming to do just that.

From her house on the hillside above Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Karen Yochem has seen many changes since moving there in 1959. While traffic and development have increased significantly, her amazing views of Mt. Rainier, Puget Sound and the refuge remain the same. Another thing also has remained remarkably constant for the last 24 years – Karen Yochem.

Every week since 1993, Karen has been making the short drive down the hill to the refuge. Not for a job, but to volunteer. She has put in more than 18,821 volunteer hours at the refuge. That is equivalent to 2,352 eight-hour work days and more than 9 years of full-time work.

Karen is believed to be ranked third for most hours among active volunteers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her paycheck comes in the form of smiles of appreciation, watching young faces eager to experience nature, and a huge grateful “family” at the refuge.


“They’ll have to carry me out of here,” Karen says. “It’s such a joy to work here. That’s why I stayed here as long as I have. It’s been a real joy. I appreciate being able to be here all these years.”


Karen is every bit as much of a fixture at Nisqually Refuge as the trails and boardwalks, wildlife and water. She is Nisqually.

“I can’t imagine Karen not being a part of this place,” Glynnis Nakai, project leader at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Complex, says. “Karen’s longevity is a testament to her invaluable support for who we are and what we do, and she is so dedicated to keeping her schedule as if she were being paid. In our eyes, she is part of the staff. All our volunteers are dedicated and passionate about the refuge. But Karen, she is our rock.”

After retiring in 1992, Karen responded to an ad looking for volunteers. She started as a receptionist and continues to be the first face you see when walking through the door. She also has helped with festivals, the Federal Junior Duck Stamp Program, the Summer Lecture Series, and trail roving. As if that weren’t enough, she has also taken on the membership duties for the Friends of Nisqually NWR Complex. She started working five days a week, but has scaled back to two days now. “But I’ll come in three or four days if they need me,” Karen says.

“When I retired from the state in 1992, I wanted to keep busy. Not that there’s nothing to do at home, but I wanted to keep busy all the time. I get bored if not,” Karen says. She said that Gene, her husband of 61 years, encourages her to volunteer as long as it makes her happy.

And you can tell from her voice that it certainly does make her happy.


“I like everything here. I love the people. The staff treats me like one of the gang, and there are so many nice volunteers. I have made many good friends here. It’s is a lot of fun. It doesn’t seem like work around here.”


Still, after 24 years at Nisqually, there’s one thing that surprises Karen: the visitors.

“It’s amazing how many people do come here,” she says. “I see where they all come from, and they leave us little notes and nice things. They’re really a bunch of nice people who come out here. They really enjoy our place. Of course, you can’t help but enjoy it.”

Yes, the views are amazing at Nisqually. And Karen, well, she’s every bit as amazing as the views.