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The Patuxent Wildlife Refuge is a Great Place to Volunteer

From left, Barrie Hershkowitz, Greenbelters Steve and Janet Mirsky and Patty Green McCarty, and senior volunteer Dennis Hartnett.


I’ve posted my appreciation for the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge several times on this blog, including a First Visit in November, a Tram Ride in mid-March, and  the North Tract’s “Wildlife Conservation and Recreation Day.” The 12,000+ acre refuge is just 15 minutes by car from Greenbelt.

But it had been a while, so I jumped at an invitation to visit again and find out what’s new there, an invitation from Greenbelt volunteer Patty Green McCarty.

Above, Patty and Dennis with information about the Junior Wildlife Ranger program for kids 6-10 years old.

I Met Some Volunteers

Retired teacher Barrie Hershkowitz told me when she came to the refuge two years ago there was nothing for young kids. So with help from a beneficiary (through the Friends of Patuxent) she created the Kids Discovery Center (KDC), a hands-on place of learning for 3-to-10-year-old children, who attend with their parent or other adult and are supervised by the volunteers.

Barrie’s grandchildren in the KDC. They also act as volunteer advisors, telling Barrie which activities are the most fun.

Retired educators Janet and Patty (who told me that in her retirement she wanted to still be around kids) also volunteer in the KDC. The educational programming there is based on Montessori School principles, and Barrie taught at a Montessori school herself. The activities are offered in four shifts of 35 minutes each on Tuesdays through Saturdays, with a new theme each month. In February when I visited the theme was eagles, and I learned the book store also participates in the theme.

Barrie told me she thought it was especially important for kids in the city to have opportunities to connect with nature, like the activities offered here.

Always on the look-out for good volunteering activities, I was impressed that the KDC (as well as other programs at the Refuge) is planned and managed by volunteers. A team of at least 12 retired educational professionals developed its curriculum and many of them also serve as docents.  Many home-schooled kids come to the KDC on regularly scheduled field trips with their parents to engage in its educational programming – free of charge!  Preregistration is recommended, but walk-ins are welcomed, when space allows.

Steve told me he loves manning the reception desk – greeting, making reservations, etc – and has been doing it for five years now. In my limited experience walking into the Visitors Center, I think his welcoming personality is put to good use there. The wide variety of visitors to the Center includes groups of mentally challenged adults and kids, for whom the Refuge is a safe place to engage with nature, and government agencies (even the Secret Service) that hold conferences there.

Other visitors come to the Refuge at night, after the visitors Center closes, for events like the popular guided night hikes in the North Track. The annual Wildlife Bazaar, with 30-some nature-related vendors, is another draw for visitors, as are the nature-related art shows.

From everyone I talked to on my recent visit, I heard pride in the Refuge, which I’m told is the only place like it in the DC area and a model for refuges everywhere. What a loss during those two years it was closed due to covid!

Ways to Volunteer

There are plenty of roles that volunteers fill at the Refuge:

  • In Visitor Services, there’s visitor information, interpretation/naturalist, tram interpreter, community outreach, trail monitor, tram driver, and environmental education.
  • In Maintenance Activities there’s landscaping/gardening, and facilities maintenance.
  • Administrative Activities include the book store, some office/clerical, writing, and volunteer management.
  • Biological activities include Invasive Species Control and Songbird Nest-box Monitor.

Click here to apply to volunteer.

The Visitors Center’s back garden, as it didn’t look on my visit in February.

It’s Social

If you’d like to meet and work with people who share your love of nature, the Refuge seems ideal.

  • Volunteers there often work in groups at gardening, mulching trails, and other tasks.
  • The Refuge holds 2 “big appreciation events” every year, and several smaller outdoor luncheons. Other social events for volunteers include attending Bowie Baysox games.

Getting to the Refuge from Greenbelt

If you’re driving from Old Greenbelt, you know what’s even faster than the sometimes-clogged BW Parkway shown here in orange? During business hours M-F you can go north on Research Road through BARC, take a right on Power Mill, and the Refuge is 3 miles on the right from there.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog weekly at GardenRant.com.

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