One gal from the Palmetto State never had to leave home to find heaven on earth.
In fact, she found it right in her back yard – at the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in McBee, South Carolina.
“I used to boastfully refer to this as ‘my refuge.’ I had ownership. Now, after walking approximately 5,000 miles on the refuge over the past 3-plus years, I can truly say the refuge owns me,” says Kay McCutcheon, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who now volunteers there.
“I essentially became who I am in large part as a result of my work here, the mentors I had, the opportunities given to me, and the accomplishments I was able to achieve through my work. Miranda Lambert sang about the house that made her. If I could sing, it would be about the place that made me - Carolina Sandhills Refuge.”
Lyne Askins, project leader at the refuge says McCutcheon is an “amazing role model” not just for women in wildlife, but all Service employees. Askins credits McCutcheon’s success to her hard work, dedication, and curiosity.
McCutcheon first entered the Service in an entry-level position in 1972. She was barely 18 years old and right out of Northeastern Technical College where she earned a degree in business administration after graduating from McBee High School.
When the refuge manager at the time hired her for 30-day appointment, McCutcheon had no idea about the facility, even though she’d grown up just 10 miles from it.
She started out typing an annual report on a manual typewriter and retired 36 years later. Throughout her career, she served 20 years as an administrative officer and 16 as a park ranger. In that time, McCutcheon spent 29 years at Carolina Sandhills NWR and more than 7 years at Santee NWR.
“I’m so thankful that fate sent this opportunity my way. My life has been so enriched because of my career with [the Fish and Wildlife Service] and the amazing things I’ve been able to see and do,” McCutcheon explains. “How else would a poor country girl have a chance to take a nighttime canoe trip in Okefenokee Swamp, witness two million bats emerging from a cave at Wheeler Refuge, band red cockaded woodpeckers and thousands of ducks at Santee National Wildlife Refuge, and watch loggerhead sea turtle nestlings emerging from their nests and scurrying to meet the sea?”
McCutcheon’s love for and commitment to the refuge in McBee didn’t end when she officially hung up her uniform at retirement. In fact, they’ve not wavered in more than half a century.
For the last 14 years, she’s volunteered her time at Carolina Sandhills, educating the public on the mission of the refuge, the endangered species who call it home and other wildlife who have habitats among the longleaf pines. The self-proclaimed “24/7 refuge ambassador” continues her longstanding support of the refuge, conducting wildlife and visitor surveys; assisting with the recovery of the red cockaded woodpecker; and, providing educational programs and guided visits for children, youth, and adults.
In addition, she serves on the board of the Friends of Carolina Sandhills Refuge organization, raising awareness of the Service and refuge mission throughout the community. She engages visitors in multiple ways: educational programs, guided walks, insightful articles and prolific social media posts, complete with compelling photographs which chronicle her refuge explorations. She now has hundreds of followers on social media who are learning about Carolina Sandhills through her digital diary.
“I want the public to appreciate the refuge for its beautiful landscapes, incredibly diverse habitats as well as its unique plants and animals. I also want them to use the refuge whether they hike, bike, birdwatch, hunt and fish, or just like to ride through and see wildlife. I want them to know it’s their treasure to enjoy, appreciate and support,” McCutcheon says.
While she’s a treasure for Carolina Sandhills NWR specifically, even making sweet treats on occasion for the team there, McCutcheon ranks as a leader among the cadre of FWS volunteers. Throughout Fish and Wildlife, including the Southeast Region, volunteers freely give their time and talents to serving the Service. Leaders say they play a vital role in helping meet FWS’ conservation goals. Volunteers help serve the nearly 50 million people who visit public lands managed by the Service each year.
“A volunteer like Kay is invaluable because she always says, ‘Yes!’ I can count on her in so many ways,” says Askins who has known Kay for 29 years and has worked with her since she retired and began volunteering at Carolina Sandhills. “Like many refuges, we are extremely short-staffed. When we have an activity that cannot be completed alone, she is always game to help. When we have a school or tour group, all I need do is ask, and her enthusiasm takes the lead.”
“Every refuge needs a ‘Kay’ on their team,” Askins adds.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, go to https://www.fws.gov/volunteer-opportunity.
“If you have passion for creatures and for people and don’t mind getting dirty and going the extra mile, the Service is for you. The rewards are truly amazing and a career or volunteer experience with the Service can change your life,” according to McCutcheon.
Throughout the Service, there are opportunities for all ages and interests.
“How will visitors gain an appreciation for our refuges and the role their programs and activities play in protecting our precious natural resources unless we engage them and share our passion for these places and their importance and help create future environmentalists and advocates,” McCutcheon asks.
“I love refuges, and I love my refuge people.”
Editor’s note: During Women’s History Month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service celebrates the accomplishments and commitment of women throughout the organization. The Women of Wildlife, or WOW, story series highlights some of the women serving in the Southeast Region.