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Volunteer Programs History

Volunteers in the 1930s

This volunteer takes photographs as part of her 'job.'

This volunteer takes photographs as part of her 'job.'

The Florida Park Service has a long history of support from volunteers and voluntary organizations since its founding in the 1930s. Many of the first state parks came into being through the efforts and support of voluntary community organizations such as the Volusia Hammock State Park Association, which started working toward the establishment of Tomoka State Park as early as 1935. During the early years, most of the volunteer services came in the form of support and donations from private citizens and from organizations such as the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs to support acquisition of new park lands.

While individuals probably donated time and effort to support local state parks since their earliest days, the formal recognition of a state park volunteer program did not come until 1977 when the first central policy for volunteers was adopted. The earliest record of volunteer service hours is 1983-1984 when 128,148 hours were donated to state parks. The volunteer commitment steadily grew, and in 2004-2005 total volunteer hours exceeded the 1,000,000 mark. In 2008-2009, more than 6,000 volunteers contributed more than 1.2 million hours, making this the largest volunteer program of any state park system in the nation.

The First Citizen Support Organization

Cuban master roller, Dagoberto Troncoso, shows the technique of crafting cigars by hand. Craftspeople like Troncoso are often onsite to demonstrate their art to visitors at Ybor City Museum State Park.

Cuban master roller, Dagoberto Troncoso, shows the technique of crafting cigars by hand. Craftspeople like Troncoso are often onsite to demonstrate their art to visitors at Ybor City Museum State Park.

In 1986, the Florida Legislature authorized the creation of Citizen Support Organizations (CSOs) for individual state parks. CSOs were to be created to provide fund-raising for projects not funded by state dollars. This legislation was in response to the creation of informal support organizations at Ybor City Museum State Park, The Barnacle Historic State Park and Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and was recognition that it was time for state parks to actively seek increased private funding to support programs and activities. The Ybor Museum Society is the oldest support organization, being founded in 1985, and was the first officially designated CSO in 1986. Since then, the program has grown to 82 organizations supporting more than 110 state park units.

The growth of the volunteer program and the authorization of CSOs resulted in the 1988 establishment of a full-time position dedicated to statewide coordination. The new Volunteer Section recommended policy and provided professional support to park managers in the formation and management of CSOs and volunteer programs in state parks. The office provided training through the Annual CSO Meeting which began in 1991, Volunteer Management Training which began in 2002, the publication and regular updating of a CSO Management Handbook starting in 1998 and a Volunteer Handbook starting in 2000. The service of volunteers was recognized through service pins and the Volunteer Recognition Weekend, which started in 1999, where volunteer awards were presented. These training and recognition services continue today when budget allows.

Creation of the Friends of Florida State Parks

In 1993, a statewide organization was created to support statewide park needs and to provide a funding channel for contributions on behalf of state parks that did not have their own CSOs. The Friends of Florida State Parks, Inc. was organized by a committee of representatives from individual park CSOs. The Friends of Florida State Parks, Inc. formed a state park endowment, established a volunteer recognition program, sponsored the annual volunteer awards, sponsored meetings and legislative tours, assisted with a number of legislative initiatives and published the Real Florida Magazine. The magazine has been renamed Florida Parks and Wildlife. Elsa Kimbell was the first president of the Friends of Florida State Parks, Inc.

In 1999, Florida State Parks established the position of Volunteer Ambassador. Long-time Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park volunteer Irene DeLaby was appointed to the position. The ambassador provided outreach to volunteers and represented the state park Director at public functions. The position also served as the voice of volunteers, to assist in the formation of policy and support of volunteers throughout the system. A CSO Ambassador position was created in 2005 to provide similar outreach and support to park CSOs. The first CSO Ambassador was Elsa Kimbell.

In 1997, the Florida Park Service received a grant to establish the state's first environmentally oriented AmeriCorps program, AmeriCorps Florida State Parks. Since its beginning, more than 500 persons of all ages have served one to two years in this national service program in support of state park projects. The members have built trails and boardwalks, made park improvements to provide for increased accessibility, removed millions of exotic plants, conducted prescribed fires, fought wildfires and served the nation in several national disaster recoveries, including for Hurricane Katrina.

Volunteers Today

Today the Florida Park Service volunteer program is a national model for its successful integration of volunteers into every aspect of park operations and management. Volunteers count for more than one-third of the workforce in Florida State Parks.