WEEKI WACHEE — Six months after becoming a state park, Weeki Wachee Springs has acquired the help of some 60 volunteers. And marketing director John Athanason says he has lots more applications sitting on his desk.
"The response from the community has been incredible," Athanason said as he flipped through a manila folder a couple of inches thick, full of volunteer applications.
Volunteer help is a staple at state parks.
According to www.floridastateparks.org, 1,000 state park employees serve more than 18,000 visitors a year at Florida's state parks, and they would not be able to manage without the help of thousands of volunteers.
Weeki Wachee Springs is no different. Extra work that used to fall on the shoulders of employees is now being done by volunteers who have special skills in areas such as landscaping, restoring art, and diving.
Cleaning the underwater theater windows, for instance, used to be a job for the attraction's famous mermaids. Now, volunteer divers come in a few times a week and do the job.
So what kind of people would sacrifice some of their time to come in and work for Weeki Wachee Springs?
Athanason said he has received applications from people of all ages and a variety of talents and skills.
Some of the volunteers are involved in landscaping, and a walk through the park reveals just how much of a difference a little bit of landscaping can make. Colorful flower beds create an inviting atmosphere and make the park more aesthetically pleasing.
Members of the Spring Hill Art League also have dedicated their time to the park while doing what they enjoy.
Evie Harper and a team of league members took the lead in restoring props such as a mermaid tail. Harper said she volunteers because it's fun and she enjoys bringing the park back to life.
Harper is also excited because people will be taking pictures of the park props she has helped to restore.
"Sometimes it is hot and nasty, and you're getting dirty, but you find yourself humming," she said.
Mike Zimmerlin is a volunteer diver for the park and said he looks at it as another excuse for him to dive. Zimmerlin, who became a certified scuba diver in 1987, has been coming in every Thursday morning to clean the underwater theater windows and props. He anticipates doing more volunteer work over the summer when the weather warms and the algae builds up on the props.
He also said the park is looking at using him and a few other divers as "safety divers" during mermaid shows.
"We're there to do whatever they need us to do" Zimmerlin said.
State park volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are retirees, some work full-time jobs, some are former Navy Seals and one even lives on site in a camper.
For Athanason, working with volunteers is something new. He is trying to keep up with the growing pile of applications and make sure each volunteer has a say in what he or she wants to do at the park.
"This is their park, and they're not afraid to talk about what they want from it," he said.
Though there's no money involved, there is one incentive for the volunteers. Once volunteers reach 500 hours of work, they get a free pass that grants them admission to any state park.