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Campers earn a longer stay at state parks by volunteering
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Unicoi State Park campground host Ron Vedder of Leesburg, Fla., talks Tuesday with a family enjoying the sites. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

State park hosts

To learn more about campground host opportunities, visit www.gastateparks.org or contact Volunteer Coordinator Lynn Barfield at 404-656-6533.

HELEN — Although they live in Florida, Dorothy and Ron Vedder know more about Unicoi State Park and Lodge in Helen than most Georgia residents.

And they probably should — they’ve been living there since June.

No, they aren’t squatters. They’re campground hosts.

"We’ve been to 12 or 13 state parks and historic sites in Georgia, but Unicoi is our favorite," said Ron Vedder of Leesburg, Fla.

State park rules limit a visitor’s stay to two weeks. While that’s good enough for some, it’s not quite long enough for the Vedders, who are avid campers.

"During one of our visits, we started talking to a gal who was a campground host," said Dorothy Vedder. "She said if we were hosts, we could stay longer, so we checked into it and here we are."

Georgia state park and historic site campground hosts perform a number of duties on location, with one of the most important ensuring that visitors have a good experience.

In exchange for volunteering at the location, they are given free access to a campsite and hook-ups. Hosts must agree to stay at least two months, but can stay up to six.

Instead of sitting at home enjoying their retirement, these grandparents are busy "working" for their keep as campground hosts. Dorothy Vedder works about 13 hours each week in the park’s trading posts, where she sells everything from marshmallows to bug repellent. Her husband helps keep the campgrounds tidy by picking up trash and cleaning fire pits after visitors vacate a campsite.

They also dish out helpful advice to park visitors.

"People come and they want to go out and break off tree branches or pick up fallen limbs, but guests aren’t allowed to scavenge for wood," said Ron Vedder. "There’s a lot of dead limbs lying around, but we need them to decompose so that the little (trees) can grow. If they need wood, they can buy it from the trading post."

When they aren’t working, the two enjoy taking walks around the park with their dog, Cinderella.

"She loves kids," Dorothy Vedder said. "Whenever we go out, she’s on the look out for kids. She likes the attention they give her."

As a retired teacher, she says it’s nice seeing younger generations show their appreciation for the park’s bounty.

"I really enjoy seeing scout troops come out and camp in the park. I think it helps to raise their consciousness about the fragility of natural resources and to respect wildlife more," Dorothy Vedder said.

One would think walking miles every day and having to trade a multiroom house for 300 square feet of living space in a camper would be an imposition, but the Vedders enjoy it.

"Camping is really good for the soul. It allows us to get away from everyone else," said Dorothy Vedder. "We prefer camping because it gives us a chance for togetherness that we can’t get elsewhere. This (camper) is our home on wheels."

Although the Vedders thoroughly enjoy being hosts, Dorothy Vedder has some very wise advice for anyone else considering the endeavor.

"You absolutely have to have comfortable sleeping quarters. If you don’t sleep well, the rest of your day isn’t going to go very well," she said.

She also swears by her slow cooker.

"It’s an invaluable resource," said Dorothy Vedder. "You put it on in the morning and when you come home, you’ve got dinner."

With only a handful of paid employees and dwindling funding, campground hosts are a priceless commodity for park officials.

"We have campground hosts year round; we currently have five sets of hosts," said Scott Hudgins Unicoi park manager. "We couldn’t (run the park) without them, especially not the trading post. It’s staffed completely with volunteers."

For the Vedders, being campground hosts was the next logical step for the couple who has gotten decades worth of enjoyment from state parks and historic sites and continue to camp year round.

"We have been to almost every state visiting sites. Camping offers a chance for peace and quiet that you can’t get elsewhere," Dorothy Vedder said.

"We love Georgia state parks so much, so it’s really nice to be able to give something back as a host."

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