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.
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.”
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/