FOLKSTON, Ga. - Jack Webb has worked the equivalent of more than 316 weeks at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and has nothing in his bank account to show for it.
Usually, volunteers come and go. That's not true of Webb, his wife, Sally, and Edythe Williams, all of whom started working at refuge headquarters 25 years ago and never left. The Webbs, Pennsylvania natives, now live in Folkston close to the swamp they love.
The newest volunteer, Brittany Waryjas, a University of Illinois at Chicago student, is spending the summer at the refuge's volunteer village where, for the first time in her life, she doesn't worry if she forgets to lock her door.
Even without compensation, they all say the payoff is immense. Webb, who is deeply tanned from riding a lawn mower in the sun and maintaining camping platforms deep in the swamp, says the work keeps him going and he gets to enjoy the big swamp.
The Webbs moved to Folkston 10 years ago from Pennsylvania, where he owned a landscaping business. He prefers projects on the water.
"I don't have to mow any of that," he laughed, pointing toward Suwannee Canal. "Just go out in a boat and look at it."
Sally Webb has made signs throughout the refuge, is on the board of directors of the nonprofit Okefenokee Wildlife League, designs presentations funded by the league and, among other things, works on the annual solar car race with sponsors Waste Management and the county school system.
Formerly the Webbs came three months in the winter, but they keep year-round hours now.
"It was the swamp that brought us here," Sally Webb said.
Williams has been in the area a long time, her husband having worked 32 years as an air traffic controller in Hilliard. It was a good job that supported their family well, she said.
"I feel like I'm giving back," she said.
All of the volunteers say the same thing: It's not just the swamp, it's the people.
Working the counter handing out information and selling keepsakes and books, Williams meets a huge percentage of visitors.
"Most are really nice. I had one guy blow up," when he arrived to find Swamp Island Drive closed, she said.
"I drive five hours from Atlanta to go down the wildlife drive and I can't go down there," the man railed.
"Other people apologized for him," she said.
Waryjas had volunteered at a zoo back home and wanted to be a veterinarian. She changed her major to environmental education so she could be around people.
As a child, her family traveled to her grandparents' place in Florida, but Waryjas said she never really saw the South.
"This is my first ever stay in the South. I would move here," she said. "Everybody down here is so nice. If I didn't have to go back to school, I'd extend my stay."
With her job at the front counter in the visitor center, Williams logs all the volunteer hours. The 30,000 hours she and the other long-time workers have donated would add up to a lot of money.
It's not so much that they save the government money, because some programs and services wouldn't be offered without volunteers, said Susie Heisey, the refuge's supervisory ranger.
Residents have always helped show off their swamp and pitch in for special events, she said.
"There are certainly a lot of things we don't have the staffing to do," Heisey said. "There's great value in the knowledge and experience the volunteers bring to the refuge."
Volunteers have worked in education, carpentry and as electricians using skills that the refuge employees don't always have, she said.
Williams said her family always helps with special events.
Working last week in the cool visitor center, Waryjas spoke of some work that most would try to avoid.
"I did get to help pump out the toilets last week" at the camping platforms, Waryjas said.
"You really don't think pumping toilets on a day off would be fun, but when you're out in the middle and you see a roseate spoonbill, you say, `Wow. I don't even care if I've got to deal with poop,' " she said.
Jack Webb said he enjoys working out on the water even if it's the hard work of helping a staffer sink 30 14-foot-long posts into the bottom to build camping platforms.
At the beginning, the work has to be done from a boat until they can build something to stand on. At the end of the day, Webb said, he's worn out.
"When I go home and sleep, it's because I'm tired, not because I'm bored," he said.
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