John Jennings led a fairly typical life for most of his 58 years.
He grew up in Fredericksburg, then followed four years in the Navy with a job at Sears, other retail work and an extended stretch in the real estate wing of Wal-Mart.
When the active and wildlife-loving Jennings retired just two years shy of 60, he wanted to travel without breaking the bank, see some amazing spots and get closer to nature whenever possible.
He got rid of his house, bought an RV and decided to explore the world full-time.
He became a traveling volunteer, moving from state to state as part of a mobile workforce that uses volunteer opportunities at federal and state parks to fill days with meaningful experiences.
"I've done and seen a little bit of everything, working at state parks, national refuges and more," he said.
He's seen wandering bears in North Carolina and massive flocks of sea birds in Florida. Jennings, who is putting in 32 volunteer hours a week at the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Warsaw, said he just wasn't ready to plop in a recliner and do nothing.
"I like to stay busy and interact with people," he said when I visited him at the Refuge's headquarters in an area called Wilna, near Warsaw. "The volunteer registry lets you do that, and you get the chance to travel and have different experiences at some really amazing spots."
He noted while there's typically no pay for the jobs found at volunteer.gov--"America's natural and cultural resources volunteer portal"--there is help in other ways.
"If you have an RV, many of the parks and other sites will provide a spot for you to park it, some providing the utilities," he said. "At other spots, they provide lodging or other services."
For now, he's living in his RV at Wilna. He said not having to pay to stay is a big relief for someone living in a camper or recreational vehicle.
The website lets travelers and locals match their interests and talents with positions offered, typically for jobs that last from three to six months. At the refuge, for example, Jennings coordinates the local volunteers at 14 different spots spread over five counties. It's no small job, as 75 volunteers last year put in more than 4,000 hours of work.
Because he's gotten training in everything from operating chain saws to driving tractors, Jennings also helps out with maintenance when needed. That means some days he's mowing fields and other days he's clearing trails.
Jennings said the posting in the Northern Neck works well for him because he has three children in the Fredericksburg area, just a short hop from Wilna.
He's been a volunteer guide, camp host, educator or other sort of staffer at Virginia state parks at Lake Anna, Chippokes Plantation and Kiptopeke. he's also worked at Oleta River State Park in Florida, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and a facility in New Mexico.
"Most of these listed volunteer positions require working 32 hours a week for individuals, or 24 hours each a week from couples," said Jennings.
When he's not volunteering, he gets to see all manner of wildlife and at times, have wide-open spaces to himself when others on staff go home at night.
"It's been great for me, because I want to stay busy and see interesting places," he said.
Even if a volunteer job doesn't suit him, it's not so bad because it doesn't last too long. Soon enough, there are new opportunities to move on to.
For more information on the opportunities all over the country, go online to volunteer.gov.
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