A Year To Volunteer has begun!
We left The Woodlands and headed east. Our next stop was Paragon Casino in Marksville, Louisiana. The next day we hit the road and traveled across three states, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and ended in Pensacola, FL.
Along the way we saw many landscapes. Homes that looked like they were straight out of Gone With The Wind with the two-story plantations with both up and downstairs wraparound porches. However, just down the road there were mobile homes and cabins that could have easily been in a scene from Chief Hopper’s home in Stranger Things.
We hung out and relaxed in Pensacola for a few days before heading down to Live Oak, FL for the RVillage Rally. Oh my goodness, what a great time! We were able to meet up with some new/old friends, like Mel and Tony of Hippie and the Tech and Full Time RV Family Life. We met a TON of new friends like the Wandering Fossans, The Bus Guys, You, Me & the RV, Chasing RV Dreams, Two Beards and a Babe, Runnamuck Threads, and dozens more. As you may have figured out by now, just about everyone who’s a full-time RV’er has a name to describe who they are and what they’re doing. Yep, this explains why we're Odyssee the World and A Year To Volunteer, our volunteer project.
I’ve come to realize that the people in the RV community are really fantastic. Almost everyone’s nice and helpful. Most RV’ers say that it’s like having a village around you. There’s always someone who will help you park your coach or trailer, guide you in or out of a spot, help fix something that’s wrong, give you something you’re missing, or give you names, numbers, emails, and websites of resources. It truly is a great community of people. We wrapped up our time in Live Oak and headed off to start our work at the Florida Caverns State Park.
As we got close to Florida Caverns State Park you could see that the trees were more and more damaged and sparse. There were huge gaps between them, the leaves were gone, several were broken and splintered and countless more were uprooted and fallen. In general, Florida is a beautiful, lush, and green state. Then, there near Marianna? A scorched landscape ravaged by mother nature, a category 5 Hurricane Michael. Once inside the park, the devastation became even more stark. There were massive piles of downed, broken, and leafless trees. No tree was safe in the path of Michael, and 9 out of 10 didn't survive. Prior to the hurricane, you would drive under a thick and beautiful canopy of forest. Most campsites used to be surrounded by trees to the point that you had no idea who your neighbor was, much less know that they were just a few feet away. Now, there was a just wide-open space and a few trees with not nearly the number of branches you would expect. These trees, this forest, and this park will need time, a lot of time, to restore the splendor of its past. Until then, our job was to do our best and help them recreate a new landscape and a new, beautiful campground for many to enjoy. There is still much to love here.
We arrived at our Year to Volunteer rallying point, an old gold course pro shop just outside the park but on park property. One RV after another started to arrive. Quickly, we realized that we were blessed to have the new friends who showed that day. By the time we went to sleep that night, we had 7 coaches and 15 people ready to get to work the next day. My heart was so full.
The next morning we woke to a very happy and surprised park manager, Jacob Strickland. The first words he said were, “I was not expecting all this!” in his straight out of the south accent. We were so happy that we had already exceeded his expectations. We did training on the UTV’s and other equipment we were going to be using. Everyone was having fun, learning and getting to know each other. After securing permission to do so, we all moved down to the Blue Hole Campground, where we parked and got to work!
Whoa, there was a lot to do.
We agreed that we would work on three main areas of the park; the Youth Camp, Blue Hole Campground, and the Equestrian Camp. The Blue Hole campground already had a lot of work done to it but we knew we had our work cut out for us. The 32 sites for RV parking were filled with loose gravel and had borders of 6x6 lumber that needed to be shaped. There was extensive debris all over the campground, a mix of branches, leaves, piles of wood chips that marked the trees that fell, and construction debris. We started to make a list of what needed to be done.
1. Cut angles on all pad borders.
2. Tamp down all sites, spray them down, re-tamp them.
3. Remove debris.
4. Tear down an old fence.
5. Create a gravel trail around the campground entrance.
6. Put gravel around all power, water and sewer pedestals.
7. Rake the grassy areas between sites.
8. Add limestone base to all sites.
9. Tear down scout shower and rebuild.
10. Build a trail from a pavilion to the Youth Camp.
12. Plant trees at the park entrance
13. Build 3 tent sites.
14. Separate, scrape, fill, level and tamp down 3 horse trailer/RV pads.
15. Put picnic tables at each campsite.
16. Remove all old roofing and timber.
That was just the start of the list. The next day we dove in. Everyone grabbed a rake, shovel, gloves and other equipment, and got to work. No one had to be told what to do. They just saw something that needed to be done, and did it.
The next day I decided to head into town with two other volunteer friends, Stacy and Jackie and see if we could get some restaurants to give food to our crew. We figured all these people came out to volunteer and we wanted it to cost them as little as possible so we went to see if we could save our volunteers a little money on food. We went to 3 big corporate places and were declined. It was the same response, “You have to go through corporate, send an email, go to their website, apply etc, etc.” We then decided to reach out to several local businesses. A completely different response. First, The Waffle Iron. I spoke with the owner, Maranda. She said to come back on Thursday at 2pm and she would have some stuff for us then. We were stunned.
The next day Maranda sent me a text that she had some stuff for us already. She had a case of egg whites and 2 cases of BBQ sauce and to come by anytime to pick them up. When I went there, she not only had the egg whites and BBQ sauce, but she also had gone to Walmart and picked up ginormous packages of hot dogs and buns for us. This provided our group with at least 3 meals over the next week and a half. Stunned again!
Maranda told me to come back the next day for more, but it got better. The next morning, she texted me that she spoke to the owner of Beef O’Brady’s, Scott O'Brien, and he wanted to help us as well. What!?! Not only was she giving us food, but she was also contacting other people she knew to also give us meals. The people in this town were incredible!
I called Scott at 10am as instructed and he was amazing. He said he wanted to cater three meals for us. He came by later that afternoon to meet our group and see what we were doing. He was so nice and thrilled about how we were helping the park.
Shortly, after we arrived in Marianna, I had heard of a local ice cream shop called Southern Craft Creamery. Several local residents had said that they had the best, home-made, straight from their own dairy cows, ice cream. I met the owner Cindy who generously gave us 3 quarts of ice cream for the team and we bought 4 more pints of different flavors. They are so talented in their craft and every flavor was unique but delicious. Imagine creative flavors such as Honey Orange Blossom, Toasted Banana with Salted Peanuts, Candied Bacon, Salted Dark Chocolate, and Basil Raspberry. Yum!
Between Maranda, Scott, and Cindy, we had enough food and leftovers for about 10 meals. It truly is this type of generosity that gives you hope for humanity and endears you to a community. Kindness, good will, generosity, friendship, and hospitality. We found all of this in Marianna.
A week after we arrived, I noticed an unfamiliar truck driving around our work site. When I waved and asked if they needed help finding someone, they said, “We’re looking for Shar!”
“Hi, that’s me!”
Meet Tiffany, Christy and Zach with Jackson County, and Meghan with Main Street Marianna, the local Chamber of Commerce. They heard about what we were doing and wanted to know what they could do to help. On the spot, they contacted the local Winn Dixie grocery store and got them to donate food and water. They offered a breakfast provided by Sheila Mader, the editor of Jackson County Times. They were also going to pay for Scott from Beef O’Brady's to provide another meal for us, and they secured a needed power-plate tamper from a local supply store as well. Additionally, they arranged to have pizza delivered later in the week. Start the water works because this wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve girl started to well up with tears and hug everyone. Who are these people? I have never been to a town so full of nice, helpful, and amazing people. Without question, southern hospitality at its finest.
In our first week at Florida Caverns State Park, we were greeted like friends, fed, and welcomed beyond anything we could have imagined. We were profiled in two newspapers; the Jackson County Floridan and Jackson County Times and our project was covered by two regional TV reporters; Jarell Baker of WJHG Channel 7 Panama City and Nick Brooks of WTVY Channel 4 out of Dothan, Alabama. They were awesome!
So far, we have had 18-20 people every day on the job helping. The more we were embraced, the harder we worked. Not bad for our first week on site!