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Fort De Soto Park needs volunteers to maintain park, campground

TIERRA VERDE — Each day workers clean 6 miles of beach, 25 restroom facilities and 7 miles of park trail at Fort De Soto Park.

There are also 800 trash cans to empty as well as 243 campsites to clean each time a camper leaves.

In recent years, budget cuts have stripped the park of much of its help.

Two years ago, there were 65 employees at Fort De Soto, said park supervisor Jim Wilson. Last year there were 34, and there's a good chance that 10 more will be cut before next year.

They need help. They need volunteers to keep the park at the top of all those best-beaches lists.

"People who have lost their jobs can volunteer," said Bob Browning, park district supervisor.

"Even if they can only come once a month, that's okay. Every little bit helps," he said. "They can do beach cleanups and pick up the trash the raccoons and the birds and the winds scatter after people put it in the trash cans."

How about all those trash cans?

They still get emptied despite cutbacks. It just takes a little longer, Browning said.

"They are checked and emptied Friday through Monday for sure," he said. After that, it's when workers get a chance.

Other volunteers are needed to police the walking and bike trails and the boat ramp.

"They can help keep seaweed and litter off the ramp and assist the boaters," Browning said.

Campground volunteers are needed, too. In exchange for four hours of work a day, five days a week — taking reservations, checking in campers, cleaning campsites — couples can stay for free in the park. The normal charge is $30 to $35 a night.

Arlene and Bob Lawrence of Seattle are one of two host couples working at the park now. There can be as many as four.

On a recent balmy morning, Mrs. Lawrence was busy behind the front desk in the office during her 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift. She was answering questions on the phone while campers waited to be checked in.

During a free moment, a man in a sweat-soaked tank top came in reporting on a mess some campers had left behind.

"That's my husband," she said. He had been out cleaning campsites while she worked in the office.

They retired 19 months ago, sold their oceanfront home and took to the road in their RV. They stayed — and worked — on South Padre Island in Texas and in Branson, Mo., before coming to Fort De Soto. They said they choose campground destinations by finding top-rated sites in areas of the country they want to explore. When their four-month stint is up in September, they are going to the Florida Keys.

"We focus more on state, county and city campgrounds. They need you so badly, they really appreciate you more than a for-profit campground," said Mrs. Lawrence, who worked for the state of Washington before retiring.

"We've been camping for 25 years," said Lawrence, retired Army and trucking company owner. "We can stay on the cheap and the money we save goes into the bus (the RV)."

What kinds of things does Lawrence have to pick up when he cleans the sites?

"Trash, tents, TVs, chairs, coolers, anything people don't want to take with them," he said.

And what is the question Mrs. Lawrence is asked most while working her desk job?

"Where can we have our dog run free?" she said.

If you want to stay on the cheap like the Lawrences, there is room at Fort De Soto. It's easy to get help in the winter, Browning said, but it's hard to find help in the dog days of summer.

And there's good reason to keep the park in tip-top shape — besides the fact it had 3.2 million visitors last year.

"In this economy, this is the kind of place locals are going to need to preserve their sanity," Wilson said.

Want to volunteer?

The kinds of jobs you can do:

• Beach cleanups • Maintenance •

Policing trails • Cleaning, helping at boat ramp

• Campground host • Cleaning fishing piers

• Office help, answering phones • Leading nature tours and history tours (training provided)

• Bird and wildlife tracking

How to volunteer

Call the park office at (727) 582-2267 or go to

pinellascounty.org/park , download an application and fax it. All applicants must undergo background checks. Once accepted as a "VIP" (Volunteer in Parks), you'll get a T-shirt and a photo ID. You'll get credit for your hours worked and recognized for those hours. Once you reach 500, you'll get your name on a plaque in the park headquarters lobby.

Fort De Soto Park needs volunteers to maintain park, campground 06/30/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 2:41pm]
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