Volunteers make a difference at Fort Wilkins

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By JOHN PEPIN 
Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Volunteers drill holes in park bench boards at Fort Wilkins.

Not long after the early morning sunlight broke Monday over the gray-shingled roofs at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, the dizzying sounds of a swarm of activity began to fill the skies from behind the pointed stockade fence.

Hammers rang. Power drills whirred. There were also the soft, wispy sounds of paint brushes being pushed and pulled over wood-plank surfaces. There was activity everywhere.

Amid it all were the voices of the young and old – talking, sharing instruction, support and laughs – because at the heart of all this effort were people.

These individuals, from cities and towns across the state, passionate and kind, made up a powerful all-volunteer workforce nearly 160 strong.

They assembled for a couple of days near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula under a single banner proclaiming “Michigan Cares for Tourism.”

Patty Janes, right, talks with Doug Rich of the Michigan DNR at Fort Wilkins.

Beginnings

“We started the program in 2012, partnering with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Travel Michigan, Indian Trails, Grand Valley State University, an organization called Tourism Cares that did similar events on a national level and a marketing company by the name of Driven,” said Patty Janes, volunteer coordinator for Michigan Cares for Tourism and a professor of hospitality and tourism management at Grand Valley State University.

“So, the six of us came together and said, ‘Could we bring the tourism industry together to donate time, resources and effort to help restore our historic attractions in Michigan,’ knowing full well that the 260 (attractions) that the state managed, for an example, had a maintenance deficit in the millions of dollars?”

The answer was “yes.”

Over the past six years, the organization has empowered 2,365 volunteers over 10 projects, including seven multiple-day efforts.

This week’s work at Fort Wilkins was backed by the in-kind and financial contributions of more than 60 businesses and organizations.

“It’s a zero-base budget project. We don’t have money,” Janes said. “The only way the projects work is if the industry cares.”

Ezra Swanson of Shelby peels bark from fence poles at Fort Wilkins.

A board of 20 organizes the group’s projects, taking on one each autumn. The group has previously worked in the Upper Peninsula at Fayette Historic State Park in Delta County.

Personal contributions

At Fort Wilkins, some of the volunteers drove 12 hours to get there. Seventy came on Indian Trails buses from Grand Rapids and Detroit. The other 90 traveled on their own. They averaged four nights spent in the region.

Ezra Swanson drove up to Copper Harbor with his dad and his sister from Shelby in the western part of the Lower Peninsula. Swanson is 16 and his sister is 18.

“I think it’s pretty cool. It’s a pretty good thing to do. It’s pretty neat,” Swanson said, who was participating in his first volunteer effort with the organization. “Especially, I love history so it’s nice to see that people are still taking care of that, trying to preserve history.”

In the morning, he was involved in rebuilding the stockade fence. Afternoon found him standing in a pile of wood shavings, helping to strip bark from logs for new posts.

Swanson said he would recommend the organization to others.

“It’s nice to be working with your hands,” he said. “I grew up on a farm, so I work with my hands a lot, but it’s nice to be doing more of that, meeting other people, more Michiganders, more Wolverines, so it’s nice to do that too.”

Corrina Kostrzewa, 19, of Jackson is in her third year studying at Michigan Tech in Houghton. She came to Fort Wilkins to volunteer with her dad.

Mark and Corrina Kostrzewa of Jackson work on preparing a fence post for the stockade at Fort Wilkins.

“I just heard about it through my dad, and he’s done it for multiple years and so I figured I’d want to join,” she said. “And since coming up to Michigan Tech, the U.P. has become my home. So, anything I can do to restore a historic site in the area, that’s pretty awesome.” 

Corrina’s dad, Mark Kostrzewa, works as a front desk manager at the FireKeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek.

“This is my fifth event with Michigan Cares,” he said.

He has helped pour concrete and paint at a picnic shelter at Belle Isle Park, cleared brush and helped remove invasive plant species near Roscommon, and shoveled and hauled limestone to help lay a pathway in Saugatuck.

He first heard about Michigan Cares for Tourism years ago when one of his work colleagues went to the governor’s conference on Mackinac Island and heard about it.

“We signed up the first year, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. “This year, FireKeepers has four people here. So, we’ve been slowly growing the group that we bring because we think it’s a great effort.

“I think it’s great that we leave something behind.”

At Fort Wilkins, crew leaders were hoping a stockade fence would be finished by the end of the day. Instead, the crew came within four or five posts of finishing the work by lunchtime.

“Because it takes so much to take care of these facilities and the DNR has a lot on their hands, I know myself, I think everybody else takes pride in the ability to come and give back to areas that matter to Michigan,” Kostrzewa said.

Some of the Michigan Cares for Tourism volunteers enjoy lunch at Fort Wilkins.

A third of the volunteers had to take a day off work to come to Fort Wilkins.

More than half had to pay for housing or other items out of their own pockets to volunteer. A $50 fee is paid to reserve a spot on the volunteer roster, with that money used to buy T-shirts and other items of appreciation given back to the workers. 

“That’s been the fascinating model for me. People just give, and when people are giving like that, how does that not become the perfect world?” Janes asked, rhetorically. “They’re giving for something bigger than themselves, and they are spending their time to come all this way to give to others.”

More benefits

Though the cultural-historical impact is the mainstay of the Michigan Cares for Tourism effort, there are additional benefits realized.

Volunteers have a fun and enriching experience, networking together while they work, which can aid in development of other projects and other efforts taking place with other organizations across the state.

They also gain first-hand knowledge about Michigan’s historic and cultural attractions.

Kyle Loup, a park ranger at Van Riper State Park, was working as a foreman in charge of a staining project, leading a crew of seven, enjoying his first opportunity to volunteer with the group.

He started working for the DNR as a summer ranger at Fayette Historic State Park. He loves history.

“With the history and the tourism, that sparked my interest,” he said. “It was five summers at Fayette, so to come up here kind of brings back memories.

“In general, this is a great experience because, just for the fact that you get to meet a lot of different people, (who) come from different cultures, all different backgrounds and all areas of the state.”

The group’s stay has an economic impact on the local community, and the work to improve the park will help increase the number of annual visitors, which feeds back into the community’s economic good fortune.

Doug Rich, western U.P. district supervisor for the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, said local business folks are aware Fort Wilkins is the iconic attraction bringing visitors to Copper Harbor.

“If we improve this, it improves the entire business climate of the community because it’s all connected,” Rich said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, we’re all one big team.”

Proof in the pudding

Bob Wild, acting park supervisor at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, said Monday’s work at the fort was his first involvement with the organization. He called it a “pretty amazing effort.”

“They’re accomplishing everything from redoing our ADA-accessible paths to helping to paint some of the toilet-restroom buildings in the campground. A lot of the focus is on the historic fort complex,” Wild said. “We’re painting exterior walls, we’re painting interior, re-decking, replacing stockage walls, we’ve got crews out doing trail restoration work, lots of trimming work going on, there’s a lot of projects going, replacing picnic tables and park bench boards, a lot of crews out there working various different projects.”

Wild, who has worked as a park interpreter at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park – Michigan’s largest state park – said the volunteer effort fills a distinct need, important to any park.

Volunteers work to rehabilitate a porch at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park.

“It’s a lot of work that’s really difficult for park staff to get to because a lot of this kind of work requires a lengthy period of time where you can have uninterrupted, focused work,” he said. “There’s going to be 1,000 hours with all these people working a full day’s shift of uninterrupted, focused work.

“It’s a huge time saver for the park and a great benefit for the park and the public who are going to come here and see the results of all this work.”

Barry James, a historian at Fort Wilkins, agreed.

“Through the (DNR) Parks and Recreation Division and the Michigan History Center, we established a priority list of projects to be done by Michigan Cares for Tourism here at Fort Wilkins, and we were able to come up with 23 projects that we thought could be completed during their six to seven volunteer hours in one day at the fort,” James said.

“They’ve been able to get to some projects that have been on a to-do list for several years. So, to have this amount of volunteer labor and to be able to get to some projects that probably wouldn’t have been reached or gotten to in several years is great, not only for the site, but for the preservation of the buildings and to prepare and move on for the future.”

James said the work involved “primarily routine maintenance projects, like painting and clearing brush through view sheds, historic view sheds, to open those up for the public to be able to see vistas that the soldiers and miners saw almost 175 years ago.”

Rich said park staffers who may have initially been skeptical of what the effort might produce, at the cost of a lot of preparation for the visit, were converted, having seen the “proof is in the pudding.”


Rich said he had seen it before and came to Fort Wilkins a supporter of the group.
“It’s just amazing how much work, how much excitement is involved with it,” he said.
Janes said she got goosebumps when a ranger who has worked at the park for 42 years told her staffers there never would have been able to find the time to accomplish these projects.
“That’s what the industry wants to know, that we did something that just wasn’t ‘you’re going to get it done next week and you’re just having us do it,’” she said. “No, this is stuff that adds value and visitors have a better experience (and) our industry is better educated. I call it the perfect educational model.”
Going green
While the volunteers worked, another effort was under way all around them, one that benefitted the project from an environmental perspective.
Jessica Loding, director of events and strategic partnerships for Schupan Events Recycling of Kalamazoo, was working to help the volunteers reduce their environmental impact.
“We provide sustainability services for carbon off-setting, recycling, food composting and waste diversion for Michigan Cares for Tourism,” Loding said.
Her job is to help the group recycle, use and compost what they can and then send the rest to the landfill.
Jessica Loding, director of events and strategic partnerships for Schupan Events Recycling of Kalamazoo
“Last year, in Roscommon, we had a 74 percent diversion rate, meaning 74 percent of all the material generated from the event was diverted from the landfill through recycling or reuse programs,” Loding said. “…We like to minimize our environmental impact on the areas in which we travel to restore for the DNR and the state and things like that, and so we’re just trying to do our little part.”
Loding runs the sustainability division at her company, which has about 80 clients in Michigan. She works with events, entertainment venues, communities and within the tourism industry to make things green.
NASCAR events in Michigan and the Detroit International Jazz Festival are two examples.
The Fort Wilkins work bee resulted in a 63 percent diversion rate, with a 67 percent rate over the past two Michigan Cares for Tourism events.
“We had about 70-75 people take the bus up here from Grand Rapids and Detroit, and as a result of not having them bring their cars up here, it off-set about 36,000 pounds of CO2 (carbon dioxide),” she said.
Looking ahead
Next fall, Michigan Cares for Tourism will travel to Leelanau State Park and the Grand Traverse Lighthouse to help make operations there run solely on solar power.
“People are working so hard,” Janes said, looking at volunteers clearing brush along the shore of Lake Fanny Hooe at the fort. “These people run their own businesses, they are hard-working, super-passionate. We get the best of the best that come because they’re willing to invest all that time.
“I am very proud of our industry, very proud of these folks and all the people that have come before them – thousands now – to make a difference. You can choose a lot of other ways to spend your day.”
To find out more about Michigan Cares for Tourism, visit michigancares4tourism.com/
Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories in our archive atmichigan.gov/dnrstories. To subscribe to upcoming Showcasing articles sign-up for free email delivery at michigan.gov/dnr.

 

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