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USACE volunteer wheels her way into Corps family

By Bryanna R. Poulin
Little Rock District Public Affairs Specialist

Ashdown, Ark.—With her contagious laugh and infectious smile Lorna Willis will have a person go from stranger to friend in minutes. Whether it’s her easy going west-coast style or good natured heart, Willis along with her massive motor coach has made a home in the hearts of those she meets.

“Millwood Lake is a better place and a testament to her volunteer spirit,” said Brooke Kervin, natural resource specialist at Millwood Project Office.

Willis who spends her time between volunteering for USACE and travelling in her RV, plays an integral role at a few Corps parks.

“Volunteers such as Mrs. Willis, are rare and deeply appreciated,” Kervin said.

Lorna Willis, Volunteer Office Clerk, assisting the Duty Ranger at the Mountain Home Project Office Visitor Center.
Lorna Willis, Volunteer Office Clerk, assisting the Duty Ranger at the Mountain Home Project Office Visitor Center.

While Willis and her RV had a map and destination in sight, her journey to volunteering wasn’t so clear. For one thing the Oregon native didn’t even know about Corps volunteer opportunities but more importantly Willis wanted to travel.

“I didn’t even know the Corps had parks and lakes,” Willis said with a chuckle. “Somehow I heard people could volunteer and in return the Corps would let you park your RV for free and use hookups (water and electric)…so here I am.”

Whether chance or fate Willis is now part of the USACE family.

She’s proved herself to be a great asset and is considered part of the team by all employees, Kathleen Payne, natural resource specialist, Little Rock District USACE said.

However when Willis first set out on her road trip adventure, living in an RV year-round wasn’t part of the plan.

“When we first retired, we thought about travelling just six months out of the year,” Willis said.

Needless to say this idea was very short lived and turned into a yearlong adventure.

“We tried doing it [RVing] for half the year but we would get home and there would be so much house work or stuff to do around the house,” Willis said.

Whether it was loads of laundry or the hassle of mowing the lawn the brand new road warrior loved to travel.

“We sold our house and decided to live all year in our RV,” she said.  “This is our home.”

Yet every home has bumps in the road.

“RV life takes some patience because you’re confined in closer quarters than a house,” Willis said.

The close quarters coupled with less personal space requires people to be sensitive of one another’s needs.

“If my husband needs some space I’ll take off a while,” Willis said.

With this in mind Willis uses the time combined with her skills to volunteer.

“Lorna answers all public phone calls and customer inquiries with professionalism, positive attitude and kindness,” Kervin said. “She takes time to provide accurate information to the public and has changed the public perception of the project office to a very positive one.”

However, the learning curve of every USACE lake being different empowered Willis to sharpen her skills and learn about USACE missions.

“She has independently learned about every park on Millwood Lake and provides a vast amount of knowledge to the public, regarding the parks.” Kervin said.

Of course by having a volunteer like Willis around it gives USACE employees time to complete their daily missions.

“Lorna sells all the America the Beautiful and USACE annual passes, which allows permanent employees to work uninterrupted,” Kervin added.  “She files all law enforcement logs, vehicle trip tickets, and visitor logs for the office.”

Kervin mentioned how having the extra support has helped the office during a period where they are short full time employees.

“Her actions streamline many of the administration processes creating a very efficient work atmosphere,” Kervin said. “The Millwood Project Office has been short staffed for more than a year and without Willis’ expertise and encouraging attitude many tasks would not have been completed.”

Incidentally as much as Willis helps inside the office her work outside is clearly visible.

“Lorna also takes initiative to do projects to improve the office and grounds,” Kervin said. “She has spent countless hours in the project’s flowerbeds, has repainted and repaired bird houses, picks up litter and is willing to perform any task to beautify the project lands and waters.”

Even after doing all this Willis continues to help build Millwood outside her scope of volunteering.

“Not only does Lorna provide volunteer duties but she also is essential in team building at the Millwood Lake Project Office,” Kervin said. “She encourages all employees and has boosted morale at the Millwood Project Office.”

Of course no hero would be complete without helping the children.

“Lorna also encourages every young visitor to become a ranger or become interested in the great outdoors,” Kervin said.

Since no USACE recreation site would be complete without water safety, Willis uses her knack with children to promote one of USACE top priorities.

“Willis has a special gift of educating children on natural resources and water safety by throwing a water safety Frisbee to them while they wait on their parents,” Kervin said. “She truly inspires them to experience the outdoors and when they leave the office, they are a junior ranger!”

For Willis, volunteering doesn’t feel like work and interestingly enough Willis feels like she’s the lucky one.

“I don’t feel like I’m volunteering…the Corps is doing me a favor because I’m getting so much more out of volunteering,” she said.

Although Willis thinks she’s getting the better end of the deal her teammates disagree.

“Lorna has a true volunteer spirit,” Kervin said. “She has been with the Millwood Project Office for almost a year and in that time she has become such an asset.”

Lorna Willis receives a certificate of appreciation from Mark Case the deputy project manager at Mountain Home.
Lorna Willis receives a certificate of appreciation from Mark Case the deputy project manager at Mountain Home.

More importantly, volunteers like Willis save the governments hundreds and thousands of dollars.

“Willis volunteered at the Mountain Home Project Office for more than two years,” Payne explained. “During her time here she donated 2,880 volunteer hours and saved the government and estimated $65,536 in labor costs.”

As much as USACE is saving money Willis feels the rewards for volunteering are priceless.

“I RV and volunteer year-round so this is my home…I have a Corps lake as my backyard and all these people are like family,” Willis concluded.

The Corps of Engineers, which is the steward of almost 12 million acres of land and water, offers many volunteer opportunities to care for recreation facilities and natural resources. The Volunteer Clearinghouse serves the Corps of Engineers nationwide to link potential volunteers with Park Rangers at lakes and waterways that need them.  The clearinghouse provides information about the volunteer program and directs people to the point of contact, usually a park ranger, at the lake or location of interest.  Callers should be ready to provide information about their interests, talents, dates available and locations they may want to volunteer. Corps park rangers, serving as volunteer coordinators, can also use the Volunteer Clearinghouse to help find volunteers.   For information on how to volunteer go to https://www.volunteer.gov/

Wearing a PFD Could Save Your Life or You Too Can Float Like a Duck

Bryanna R. Poulin                                                                                                    Public Affairs Specialist

 

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas—Duck hunting season is in full swing and whether hunting on the river or wading in back waters the risks associated remain the same.

Although many hunting trips could go seamlessly smooth there is no guarantee the next trip will be the same.

“A fall overboard or boating accident can happen unexpectedly,” Jeremy E. Wells, natural resource specialist Little Rock District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.

Russell Malahy also a natural resource specialist with Little Rock District USACE reiterated Wells by saying “A boating accident can happen at any time,”

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Even if a hunter follows every safety precaution no outdoorsman is invincible.

Malahy remembers a time loading his 10 foot boat during a chilly winter morning to go duck hunting with his friend.

“At that age I was bulletproof and ignorant to the world,” Malahy joked. “Off we went with about 2 inches of freeboard, loaded to the brim with our gear and a small horse and a half outboard that could barely push us.”

However as the two youngsters plowed through the water another boat came upon them at accelerating speeds.

“They trailed us for a while,” Malahy said.  “Then, I assume, decided they couldn’t wait and went to pass without a care of slowing down throwing a wake any surfer would have thoroughly enjoyed.”

While a surfer would enjoy the heavy wake the near fatal accident for Malahy and his buddy could have gone much worse.

“At the time, the only thing that came to mind was a few select curse words for the gentlemen, not realizing the dangers we just merely escaped,” Malahy said. “Call it luck, call it faith, call it whatever you would like but for some reason that morning we never swamped the little boat. We were not wearing life jackets, tremendously overloaded, and ill prepared for any accident. I think back about that day and ponder on the decisions we make in life.”

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Experience like this makes Malahy understand the importance of duck hunting water safety.

“Some accidents we are lucky to learn from but not everyone ends up as lucky as we were that cold dark morning,” Malahy said.

Even though Malahy didn’t encounter any incidents that day there are a number of things that could have gone wrong.  Both Malahy and Wells stress the importance of safety while in or around the water during duck hunting season.

“It is important to wear your life jacket and consider all safety precautions while boating and hunting so you can return home to those that love you,” Wells said.

“Being safe is important because your family needs you to return home alive,” Malahy added.

The most obvious safety measure would be wearing a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). But some find endless excuses to not wear them.

“The most common excuses are they are bulky or hunters think they can’t shoot while wearing one or the water is only waist deep water,” Malahy said.

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Wearing a PFD decreases the chance of drowning. It doesn’t mean a hunter is completely out of the woods during hunting.

“Other hazards hunters face when boating during duck hunting is hitting floating debris, logs, running aground, taking on water, and capsizing,” Wells noted.  “All these things could lead to damaging the boat motor or lead to a serious boating accident and you finding yourself in the cold water.”

In other words threats are everywhere.

“Hunters could overload their vessel and have improper weight distribution,” Malahy added.  “There are underwater obstructions or complete carelessness and racing to the duck holes.”

Even though wearing a PFD can keep a hunter from drowning it doesn’t protect against the other reasons for fatalities.

“I wouldn’t say that all fatalities are from drowning alone,” Wells believed. “There are other causes of death like hypothermia, shock, impacts from striking an object and other injuries sustained from boating accidents.”

Basically since duck hunting season is during the winter nobody is immune to the cold water.

“Falling in the cold water or accident injuries could also lead to other serious illness or medical emergencies,” Wells said.

Of course if drowning doesn’t cause a fatality, hypothermia could.

“Other risks are cold water immersion, which leads to hypothermia, propeller strikes from falling overboard and not wearing a kill switch,” Malahy said.

Simultaneously wearing a PFD coupled with a kill switch increases the chance for survival if thrown overboard.

“If you do fall overboard, your life jacket will keep you afloat and the shutoff lanyard will keep your boat from running uncontrolled,” Malahy added.

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 If someone is wearing a PFD and floating in cold water there are simple life saving techniques for hypothermia.

“Hypothermia can kill,” Malahy said. “Huddle with others if you can’t get out of the water.  If you are by yourself draw your knees up to your chest and float.”

Nevertheless according to the U.S. Coast Guard in 2015 there were 428 deaths caused by drowning and only 63 had their life jacket on.

Yet wearing a PFD is personal accountability so it’s important to try to encourage people who aren’t wearing it.

“If you’re a captain of a vessel take a stand for safety and make all passengers wear their life jackets while riding in your boat,” Malahy said. “Also people can appeal to their friends and family to wear it for those they love.”

Wells believes encouragement and being firm is important.

“Try to encourage them to wear their life jacket, remind them that something could go wrong at any time and they need to return home to those that love them,” Wells emphasized.  “Or simply refuse to operate the boat until everyone has on their life jacket.”

Since USACE is the largest provider of water-based outdoor recreation in the nation educating guests on water safety is one of the top priorities.

“We have an aggressive water safety campaign nationwide to educate and inform the general public in the importance of wearing a life jacket, boating safety and just being safe around water,” Wells concluded.  “We do this though use of many outreach tools to include ranger interpretive programs, social media, media publications and literature, advertising, water safety booths at events, to just a park ranger talking to someone on the lake shore.”

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The most important takeaway is to always wear your life jacket and heed all safety precautions while boating and hunting so you can return home to your loved ones.

For more safety tips go tohttp://www.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Recreation/National-Water-Safety_Program/

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