By KRISTIN FARLEY
6 News Anchor/Reporter
GATLINBURG (WATE) — Thousands of people work in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and never get a paycheck because they're volunteers.
During a recent visit by 6 News, two of the park's 75th anniversary ambassadors volunteered more than 10 hours to guide our crew along the Alum Cave trail to Mount LeConte.
Kathy Wilbanks and Dan Lawson look like park rangers. They even have uniforms.
Along the route, we encountered several people who stopped and asked the pair questions, assuming they're park service employees.
“It's a rare opportunity for anyone to get to know and appreciate their national park, right in our backyard. Volunteerism is a great way to do it,” Lawson says.
In 2008, there were more 2,100 volunteers in the park. The group logged approximately 110,000 hours. That's equivalent to 56 full time employees.
Since the park doesn't charge an entrance fee, the volunteers are crucial to the Smokies. “If the volunteers aren't here to help, it won't get done. We just don't have the money,” Wilbanks says.
Park officials tend to agree. Many who spoke with 6 News say the volunteers are the heart and soul of the Smokies.
“They work because they love it. They love Cades Cove. They love LeConte,” says Ranger Mike Maslona. “They love this place and I don't know where we would be without volunteers.”
Maslona works closely with several volunteers in Cades Cove. They're trained by the park service, but their only payment is the joy of giving back.
Stan Toten has been volunteering for 11 years. For those who stop by the John Oliver Cabin in Cades Cove, he's likely a familiar face.
“You just get to meet so many good people,” Toten says. “They ask so many good questions. It's amazing some of the good questions you get out here and giving them the answers is fun.”
Answering questions is what most volunteers do. In fact, even the main desk at the Sugarlands Visitors Center is staffed largely with volunteers.
If you are interested in volunteering in the park, contact Jeremy Sweat at 107 Park Headquarters Drive Gatlinburg, Tennessee 37738 or email firstname.lastname@example.org