April 10, 2016 - Gary McDermott’s camera sits firmly bolted to his wheelchair. He uses a bite switch to focus and take pictures, “like skydivers,” says this former helicopter gunner. Ever since a diving accident forced him into the wheelchair, McDermott has figured out ways to keep doing the things that give him pleasure and purpose – which now includes volunteering at Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, IL.
McDermott is among the approximately 39,000 people who volunteer annually with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, donating about 1.5 million hours, valued at more than $36 million. Members of many refuge Friends organizations volunteer for refuges and do other work, like fundraising, that helps refuges.
McDermott helped plan a deer hunt for people with disabilities, selecting a site for an accessible duck blind and working on elevated platforms so hunters in wheelchairs could see above the vegetation. Now Upper Mississippi River Refuge is planning digital photography workshops; visitor services manager Pam Steinhaus hopes McDermott will help persuade others that having a disability does not preclude hunting, photography or volunteering.
Volunteer jobs are as varied as the volunteers themselves: Some volunteers at national wildlife refuges lead bird walks and tram tours. Others answer questions from visitors and school children or band ducks and count butterflies; some live on refuges for weeks to months at a time in cases where refuges have bunkhouses or electrical hook-up sites for RVs. Many RV pads for volunteers are reserved many months in advance.
One teenager drew attention to the growing problem of marine debris by wearing a dress made of balloons collected at Eastern Shore of Virginia Wildlife Refuge. A group of retired men comes to Mattamuskeet Refuge, NC, every year to fish and complete one major construction project. Women in Preservation has restored historic maritime structures on Plum and Pilot Islands at Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge, WI.
A volunteer at Patoka River Refuge, IN, assisted with bird surveys, nest monitoring, trail cleaning and photography. Steve Gifford said getting out on the refuge “calms my heart and restores my soul a bit, and helps me put things in perspective. I think it can do the same for others if we help make them aware that it is there for them to use and enjoy.”