If you want to get outside, be active and give back to the community, consider volunteering at the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is in charge of resource management and conservation for eight refuges in the region. Volunteers assist with activities that range from showing a young person how to fish to banding pelicans.
Popular USFWS programs in St. Tammany include the recent Junior Ranger program held over spring break, the 25th annual Bogue Chitto Youth Fishing Rodeo coming up June 9 and the annual Wild Things fest in October, which attracts more than 5,000 each year to the parish.
There's a great need for volunteers indoors as well, in the Bayou Lacombe Visitor Center located at the USFWS headquarters at 61389 La. 434 in Lacombe. Volunteers are needed for shifts from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. every Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
Volunteer Jay Schwander got involved eight years ago when he retired.
“They were looking for someone to run their canoe outings,” Schwander said.
He soon became involved with the Friends of the Southeast Louisiana Refugees and currently is president of the nonprofit group, which supports the USFWS in its mission to preserve wildlife habitats and serve as public stewards of the regions’ refuges.
“I volunteer at the Visitor Center, lead boat outings and bird walks, help with tree planting, the Wild Things,” he said.
His annual favorite is the Youth Fishing Rodeo, which Schwander said draws about 170 youths ages 4 to 12 and their families.
“We usually have about 30 volunteers, but we can always use help,” he said. It’s a time to “get kids outdoors and show them how to fish.”
The Youth Fishing Rodeo will be held from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Saturday, June 9, at the Pearl River Turnaround, exit 11 off Interstate 59. Every registered child must be accompanied by an adult and be able to hold their own fishing pole. Each will receive a rod-and-reel, tackle, bait, event T-shirt and lunch. The rodeo entry fee is $25, and it often fills up before the May 1 deadline.
There are other unique opportunities for volunteers, such as a recent trip to the Breton National Wildlife Refuge in the Gulf of Mexico to help band more than 6,000 baby pelicans. Schwander said there is also an upcoming walk to view the bats in the Big Branch Marsh.
“It’s fun to give back to the community,” he said. “I love the outdoors and get to really see nature up close.”
Diane Barth, the USFWS ranger in charge of education and outreach, coordinates volunteer activities at the local refuges.
More than 9,500 volunteer hours were contributed in 2017 at the Big Branch Marsh, Bogue Chitto, Bayou Sauvage and Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuges.
That number includes individual volunteers as well as groups and the“RV Volunteers” who stay at the center from one to six months to help with restoration work, she said.
Volunteers at the Visitor Center can meet people from around the country. They tell guests about the trails, walkways and historic botanical gardens at the headquarters’ 110-acre site. The center holds interactive exhibits that highlight area wildlife and habitat, there's a small bookstore and gift shop.
Barth said about 100 people volunteer for Wild Things, which this year will be held Oct. 13.
Step Outside Day is a “big family outdoor fun day” scheduled for May 12 at the Atchafalaya refuge. It is held in partnership with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Army Corp of Engineers.
Other volunteer opportunities include the popular Work/Play Days. The next one will be held May 5 from 9 a.m. till noon at the Bayou Lacombe Visitor Center.
“These are a great opportunity to help with mulching, pruning and other grounds maintenance,” Barth said. The Friends provide a light lunch, and after the work, there's an optional paddle on Bayou Lacombe.
She would also like to develop volunteers to assist with environmental education.
To learn more about becoming a volunteer, contact Barth at (985) 882-2021 or email diane_barth@ www.flwr.org. To register for the Youth Fishing Rodeo, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/bogue_chitto or call Ranger Joanne Dolan at (985) 882-2015.