This Is What It's Like To Live And Volunteer At Hugh Taylor Birch State Park
There’s a group of people who live so close to the ocean they can feel the breeze floating over the dunes. And then maybe they move deep into a highland forest with a north Florida spring as clear as a swimming pool.
They watch the sun rise over slash pines overlooking the Atlantic. Their days end with sunsets over powdered sugar beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. For this, they pay exactly nothing.
They’re called “resident volunteers,” and they do the equivalent of a part-time job in volunteer work in exchange for living in the middle of state and national parks. Some right here in town.
Resident volunteers are old-school nomads in the digital age. They move every few months to some new picturesque piece of untouched land.
If you’ve driven into the main entrance of Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, maybe you’ve seen the service road that turns off to the left, right after the ranger station. Back there in the jungle, like some Old Florida roadside RV park, is what they call Volunteer Village.
The campsites are just barely cut out of live oaks and sea grapes and all manners of vines and overgrowth. It’s there that Kearston and Amon Allen parked their 1973 Airstream.
The Allens got married in 2015 back in their hometown of Texarkana, Texas. They watched the TV shows about people who moved into tiny homes, and they imagined a simpler life with fewer things and more adventures. Amon is a traveling nurse, working for a company that sends him to new hospitals every few months, so they figured the Airstream was a good way to see the country. They bought it in 2016, and after almost a year of refurbishing it, its aluminum shell now catches the morning sun like a white gold necklace.
They started their small house journey in February in Columbus, Georgia, and set up in a campground. After Amon got a job at Westside Regional in Plantation, they rented a spot at Topeekeegee Yugnee Park. There, RVs are crammed together with little separating them, and suddenly the nomad life didn’t seem so enticing.
Somebody told Kearston about the resident volunteer program at Florida State Parks, and she booked a tour that day. At 180 acres, Birch is a relatively small state park, but it’s sandwiched between the ocean and the Intracoastal, with old-growth Florida swampland in between. A ranger took her around Birch, up to the brewpub with its shady views of the ocean, over to the road that glides along the Intracoastal, and then to the Volunteer Village, just feet from the seawall. “We’re from Texas. We don’t have any of this back home, and I seriously love this,” Kearston says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, yes.’”
They parked the trailer in Birch in July and have two neighbors, a pair of couples willing to sweat through the summer heat. Sure, the trailers are air conditioned, but the resident volunteers are required to do volunteer time each week in jungle humidity that leaves them looking like they’ve gone for a swim.
Among their neighbors are Corey Schallek and Julia McInnis, who moved down from Maine. They both work at ETARU on Las Olas, Corey as lead bartender and Julia as lead server. In April, they saw an ad on Craigslist for the resident volunteer program. “You find the sketchiest things on Craigslist,” Corey says, “and sometimes you find the best things.”
Midmorning on a pizza-oven-hot Thursday, Corey and Julia rake up sea grape leaves at Birch’s brewpub, Park & Ocean, and then haul overpacked trash cans to a dumpster nearby. Corey says living in the park is a respite for them; they’re both more suited for the country but can do far better in their industry in a city. They come home after late nights at the restaurant, open the park gate with a code for the resident volunteers and then take a spin on their scooters through the pitch-dark loop road. “Have you ever seen ‘Night at the Museum?’” Corey asks. “It’s amazing being back here at night. It’s like your own private park.”
During the winter, most Florida parks have so many people on the resident volunteer waiting list that it could take years before they get their turn. But in the summers, many parks have spots at the ready.
In exchange for rent-free living in state parks, the volunteers must do at least 20 hours of work a week per site, more at some parks. A couple can split the time between them or one person can knock it out alone. At the national parks, volunteers must do at least 32 hours, but they often end up working far more, says Ted Firkins, the Pine Island District interpreter for Everglades National Park and head of the resident volunteer program there.
“Volunteers are how we get a lot of the work done,” Firkins says. “They get to contribute and be part of something bigger than themselves, and we get help in doing a lot of the work that makes these parks possible.”
Maybe the biggest drawback, though, is this: the rules forbid volunteers from living in the park for too long. In state parks, the volunteers must up and move every 16 weeks. Sometimes they can book another park in advance, but other times they will approach the end of their four-month stay having no idea what’s next.
That’s true for the Allens, who will leave Birch for San Antonio. They’re hopeful they’ll find the same kind of setup in a park back home in Texas, but for now, they have a looming uncertainty of what’s next for their Airstream life.
While at Birch, Kearston handles the volunteer hours as Amon works at the hospital. As Corey and Julia rake up sea grape leaves, Kearston is on the other side of the park spraying Rust-Oleum on a teeter-totter. Then, she goes and sweeps up sand from the entrance of a bathroom. She will end her day, like every day, cleaning the sinks and toilets, and then emptying the trash.
Aside from the uncertainty, that too is the glaring drawback to serving as a resident volunteer. It’s not the glamorous work of a park ranger that most of them do, but instead the stuff nobody else wants.
Still though, Kearston says she wakes up to views of light from the sun touching the Intracoastal in a color of a bowl of citrus. “We kind of just conjured up this dream,” she says, “and here we are living it.”