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Lake volunteers live, work at village near Buford Dam
Corps is adding 7 more camping sites at the village
Maynard Correll at his campsite at the Volunteers Village campground last week. - photo by Tom Reed

Lake volunteers

To apply to become a volunteer at Lake Lanier or for more information, call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at 770-945-9531 or visit the website.


BUFORD — The retired couple gets the question all the time: "You have a house in Florida and you come up here to live?"

Carolyn Zimerle has a ready answer.

"Why would we want to sit on balconies, looking over a round lake, drinking wine and watching people run all around the streets and everything?" she said. "We'd rather be up here. We just love it."

"Here" is Volunteer Village, a seven-lot RV campground housing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers volunteers working parks and trails around Lake Lanier.

The gated community off Buford Dam and Suwanee Dam roads is filled with tall pines and RV sites that feature all the comforts of home, including water, sewer and electricity. Volunteers also have a pavilion, where they gather for cookouts and other social events.

For the privilege of living in the secluded area, the red-shirted volunteers — most of whom are retirees — give back at least 20 hours a week of work, including staffing gatehouses, trail maintenance, keeping up bulletin boards and taking part in water safety presentations.

"Being retired is the greatest thing ever, but we are not ones to sit down and do nothing," Zimerle said.

Park rangers "have a lot of tasks to perform and by us being here taking over the menial-type tasks, it gives them the ability to concentrate on what is more important, what helps the project," said her husband, Bruce.

"We are doing projects they just don't have the manpower to do," said fellow volunteer Maynard Correll.

The corps has a volunteer program nationwide, with a clearinghouse based in Nashville, Tenn. People have come to the Volunteer Village at Lake Lanier from as far away as Oregon and California, Zimerle and Correll said.

The North Georgia reservoir, which draws some 7 million visitors annually, has 27 volunteers, including several who don't live at the campground, said Nick Baggett, the corps' natural resource manager at Lanier.

And the agency is always looking for more help.

Volunteers "offset what we may not be able to do," Baggett said. "I'm amazed constantly with how these guys and gals will take on a project — take ownership of it, many times — and surpass our expectations on the quality of work.

"Many of them have been managers or carpenters. They come from a variety of backgrounds. ... They often make a recommendation on how to improve a process."

Bruce Zimerle was an engineer and Carolyn Zimerle was a doctor's office manager before they retired to Florida. The couple, living in Lawrenceville for 22 years, was familiar with Lake Lanier and had stayed at the village on and office since December 2006.

They have stayed year-round at the campground since 2008.

Correll and his wife, Barbara, have lived at the village for 15 months, with a lake home in Forsyth County that they are trying to sell.

"We have taken from the lake for so long, we made a decision to give back to the corps, to the lake," he said. "... We just wanted to do something different for the community."

Unlike his village neighbors, Correll still works as a hydraulic engineer for a firm out of Charlotte, N.C.

"I do my volunteer work on the weekends," he said.

With summer season lasting unofficially from the Memorial Day weekend in May to the Labor Day weekend in September, "we are very busy at the parks, doing gate duty and helping rangers with monitoring (traffic)," Correll said.

Corps officials meet with volunteers every Thursday and farm out duties.

"There's not a job somebody won't volunteer for," Correll said. "We overcommit so often, because we want to try to get everything done."

Sometimes, 20 hours per week stretches into 40 or 45, almost like a full-time job, Carolyn Zimerle said.

"It doesn't matter," she said. "We do it because we enjoy it."

As federal budgets tighten, "we're seeing a greater need for more volunteers," Baggett said.

The corps is adding seven more camping sites at the village, with bulldozers pushing down trees last week.

"Our budget is somewhat limited on this, so we're taking it one step at a time," Baggett said. "Right now, we're trying to get the ground work done. As we have more money available, we will develop the sites a little more."

The expansion project has no completion date, he added.

For now, the Zimerles and Corrells are happy to do their part to help things run as smoothly as possible around the lake.

And they don't get thank-yous just from the corps.

"It's surprising how much the community appreciates the volunteers," Zimerle said.