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Though required to work 24 hours a week as volunteers, Judy and Lee Bransford still find plenty of time to relax at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge with their German shepherd, Taylor, and Shih Tzu, Jasmine. The refuge gives them a free place to live in exchange for volunteer hours.
Daily photo by Brennen Smith
Though required to work 24 hours a week as volunteers, Judy and Lee Bransford still find plenty of time to relax at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge with their German shepherd, Taylor, and Shih Tzu, Jasmine. The refuge gives them a free place to live in exchange for volunteer hours.

A little work, peace and relaxation at Wheeler
Enjoying the Refuge life
Free RV parking not the only perk for resident volunteers

By Paul Huggins 340-2395

The chatter of songbirds blends with rustling maple leaves that can't quite hide the retiring sun.

The aroma of roasting oak fills the cool autumn air as Lee Bransford's German shepherd finally catches up with a rubber ball just before it bounces over the banks of Flint Creek. Judy Bransford sits content in a lounge chair and gently strokes the Shi Tzu in her lap.

Ahhh! This is the life. Peace and quiet and surrounded by nature with a clear blue sky overhead. It's living free.

The Bransfords' refuge is actually Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and the best part of all is their home costs nothing.

Well, the Bransfords would say the zero rent they pay is hardly the best part of their set-up, and they did pay a pretty penny for their 33-foot travel trailer.

Stress-free living

But the free place to park their home on wheels is a great perk and worth the time they give in exchange for its picturesque location. It's stress-free living, they said, but the cost comes with sacrifices.

The Bransfords are the fourth installment of a new resident volunteer program Wheeler started last year. They parked their RV here Oct. 1 and will remain until Dec. 21. The refuge, in turn, gets 24 hours of volunteer service each week, specifically having one or both of them work the information desk at the refuge's Visitors Center on weekends.

"The main reason I did this is I was so excited to work at the refuge," she said.

Her excitement is matched by Teresa Adams, supervisory refuge ranger, who supervises Wheeler's public education programs.

Resident volunteers, who rotate every quarter, free her staff so they can offer educational programs. The raptor program Oct. 14 at the Visitors Center is a good example, she said.

"We would not keep this building open the hours we do without our volunteers," Adams said.

Adams, who came from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, said she was surprised Wheeler didn't have a resident volunteer program when she arrived four years ago. She had seen the benefits on Corps properties and turned to her former employer to help find Wheeler's first volunteers.

Adams also advertises the program on and thinks word of mouth could prove more successful. That's how the Bransfords arrived here.

For nearly five years they've lived in their RV as semi-retirees. Bransford works as a medical contractor for cardiac units, moving to new hospitals usually every three or four months. While he's working at Decatur General Hospital, they've stayed at Point Mallard.

Last month, a campsite neighbor told his wife about the refuge program he had just learned of from a golfer.

"Twenty minutes later I was over here talking with Teresa," she said.

It was a perfect way to fill her need for more human contact. Working the desk has its quiet moments, she said, but interesting people arrive daily, and she listed recent visitors from New York, California and New Zealand.

Besides answering visitors' questions, their duties include opening the observation building and setting up the nine-minute video for visitors.

Resident volunteer programs are not new. currently lists 202 openings across America, ranging from being lighthouse keepers at Apostle Island National Lakeshore in Wisconsin to garden host at Dry Tortugas National Park in Key West, Fla.

Sonny Fanning, a full-time RVer who held the Wheeler post this summer, said he's been doing this for about five years, mostly at Monte Sano State Park.

The retired maintenance director for the Madison County Commission said resident volunteer programs typically save him $400 per month in campsite rentals, big savings for his fixed income.

He enjoyed his volunteer time at Wheeler so much, he returned earlier this week to repair the hawk's cage behind the Visitors Center.

"I had come by this place many, many times and never stopped. When I finally did, I ended up staying three months," Fanning said.

The Bransfords have parked their trailer across America, from California to Washington, D.C. Wheeler is an ideal set-up, they said.

Since they're not in a campground, they don't have to keep their two dogs on leashes. Their campsite, which includes sewer hookup, is less than 200 hundred feet to the water's edge and views of secluded shores. From their oversized back window they can see light glistening off the water.

"When these leaves come off these trees, it's going to be beautiful," Judy Bransford said.

The site lacks shade and neighbors — unless you count critters — and time will tell if being isolated from late afternoon till the next morning agrees with them.

This is their first try as resident volunteers. Both said they see plenty of people during the day, so they welcome seclusion at night.

It's easy to fall in love with the Bransfords' lifestyle. They get to travel, see America's hidden treasures and meet interesting people (the original architect of Disney World, for example). Home maintenance is miniscule compared to a typical home. If a rotten neighbor moves in, the solution is a trailer hitch away.

But this life is not for everybody.

"You got to be compatible to do this," Bransford said, of the confined living. "We do have our (rough) times, but I haven't had to sleep on the couch yet."

More important, this lifestyle requires giving up permanent ties and seeing family as often as most parents and grandparents are accustomed to doing. And each move means finding a new dentist, hair stylist, grocery store and hardest of all, a church, they said.

"My sister said to me, 'How can you do that. All those strangers,'" Bransford laughed before his wife added, "That's what we like about it.

"You have to have the personality that likes to go out and meet people," she said.

"If you can't do that," her husband concluded, "it can be a lonely life."

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