Wildlife Prairie Park is considered a hidden gem in the Midwest, but many don’t realize the important role volunteers play at the 480-acre natural habitat park.
“We’re a not-for profit organization, so volunteers are really what make the park run,” said volunteer coordinator Lindsay Seiberlich. “Many of our programs –like the train, the Adventure Trek and the schoolhouse—can’t run unless we have volunteers, because we simply don’t have enough staff power to do that.”
Located on Taylor Road in Hanna City just 10 miles west of downtown Peoria, Wildlife Prairie Park houses a variety of animals native to Illinois and the Midwest, including bison, elk, cougars, black bears, bobcats, otters and owls.
Founded in 1978 by William Rutherford, the park’s ownership was transferred to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in 2001 but was signed back over to a private governing board in 2013.
The park attracts nearly 140,000 visitors annually, according to its website.
“We have about 350 volunteers in our data base right now, not including people that just help with special events like Wildlife Scary Park or the Olde English Faire,” Seiberlich said.
“We’d like to bring in more volunteers, especially for our visitor center and trail guides,” she added. “We do have a lot of people helping, but there are still gaps in certain
Volunteers are welcome to sign up at any time by completing an application found under the volunteer tab on the website at www.wildlifeprairiepark.org. After receiving applications, Seiberlich meets with potential volunteers to discuss their interests and arranges training with staff and team leader volunteers. Volunteers also undergo a background check.
“We have opportunities for most ages, and we take individual volunteers and also group volunteers. So there’s really something for everybody,” Seiberlich said.
Individual volunteers must be at least 13 years old, but some families bring younger children to help pick up trash or clear large sticks from the trails. The park’s oldest volunteer is in his 90s, and several have been helping for at least 20 years.
Larry Fitch of Canton started volunteering at Wildlife Prairie Park in 2008 after hearing about it from a friend. The Caterpillar retiree primarily takes care of the park’s computer and phone systems but also works on special projects as needed.
“It’s just a simple fact that as you get older, you need to keep your mind occupied and keep yourself performing well,” Fitch said when asked why he volunteers. “The staff is great and so appreciative.”
Helping at the park has led to new friendships and a sense of fulfillment, he added.
Volunteers work anywhere from a few hours a month to more than 200 hours a year, depending on their desire and availability. Perks include a 10 percent discount at the park’s eateries and store while working, and rewards increase to include guest passes, patches and a T-shirt with hours worked. Volunteers who work 200 hours or more in a calendar year receive a free park membership.
“It’s really a neat place to volunteer,” Seiberlich said. “There aren’t a lot of places where you get to work outdoors in such a beautiful place. A lot of people will walk the trails and pick up garbage, so they’re getting to enjoy nature and exercise while they’re helping out.”
Most volunteers don’t work hands-on with the animals but do assist the animal keepers in various ways. Longtime volunteers in the education department learn how to present public programs on animals such as skunks and rabbits.
“Maintenance and landscaping is also a very important area that needs volunteers,” Seiberlich said. “There are so many structures and enclosures in the park that need to be maintained and it’s difficult for our maintenance department to handle it all, so that’s where our volunteers come into play.”
The park needs skilled plumbers, electricians, landscapers and construction workers, as well as anyone who likes to do manual labor and can assist in projects.
There are several transportation opportunities, including driving or narrating the Adventure Trek bus that offers a guided tour throughout the park and the Prairie Zephyr Train that follows tracks through the park.
The park has recently begun staffing its visitor center solely with volunteers. “It’s the information center of the park,” Seiberlich said. “It’s a place where everybody goes to ask questions in the main area of the park, and the place where people can buy the train tickets and the Adventure Trek tickets and rent wagons and things. So it’s kind of a secretarial position almost, but it’s also definitely customer service-oriented.”
Trail guide is another position in need of volunteers. “We give them information packets so they can learn about the animals and native plants, because people always have questions out on the trails,” Seiberlich said.
Two other volunteer opportunities include the park’s schoolhouse and log cabin. “Both were built in the 1800s and they were actually transported and donated to the park, but those can only be open if there’s a volunteer there,” Seiberlich said.
Finally, volunteers are needed to work in the Adventure Store gift shop and at special events, such as the Olde English Faire coming up June 24-25.
“We need a lot of people at the Faire to help direct parking, to man an information table, to help run water to volunteers, to walk around and be floaters and make sure trash cans are being emptied and things like that,” Seiberlich said.
For more information about becoming a volunteer at Wildlife Prairie Park, call Lindsay Seiberlich at (309) 676-0998, ext. 102, or email her at email@example.com.
— Volunteers provide indispensable help at Wildlife Prairie Park —