GE Elfun members are taking a different type of vacation while participating in service learning trips across the United States.
Most recently, 19 GE Elfun members from 11 states traveled to West Yellowstone to donate a week of their time working with the National Smokejumper Center.
The Elfuns are made up of group of retired and active GE employees who enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to be together on different projects. They decided to take localized volunteer initiatives on the road in order to contribute to different projects as well as reserving some time to learn about unique areas across America.
Elfun members volunteered in cities where GE plants were located for many years. Volunteering was a logical thing to do if you lived and worked in the community, according to Elfun member John Betchkal, who contributed to starting some of the first service learning trips beginning in 2000.
Elfuns teamed up with Road Scholar, previously named Elderhostel, to form a yearly agenda for their Service Learning Adventures program. Road Scholar provides programs for lifelong learners like Elfun members.
They've traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii to visit Pearl Harbor and lent their skills and help with maintenance on the USS Missouri for one project. They will return to a summer camp in Vermont again this month to help with repairs and explore New England.
They've discovered, however, that each place is a unique experience, especially when they traveled to West Yellowstone for their most recent service project. They collaborated with the National Smokejumper Center to assist with restoration work on the historic Madison Ranger Station, which was built in 1924.
NSC board of directors president Barry Hicks had the idea to create a service project last year when he first found out the historic ranger station would be finding a new home at Dunbar Park in West Yellowstone at 2 Yellowstone Ave., next to the visitors center.
NSC board member Mark Petroni and Hicks worked with the Elfuns to get the ranger station restored.
The National Smokejumper Center contacted the University of Montana Western in Dillon, which sponsors the Road Scholar programs.
"We have been doing programs with them for the last three or four years," Hicks said. "Road Scholar programs get adults out on the road with educational opportunities and we started out offering intergenerational education vacations."
Through the program, groups of adults and their children and grandchildren would visit the NSC to learn about fire.
"We put the kids through the Junior Smokejumper Program and the older group would gain perspectives of a more sophisticated fire education," Hicks said.
The entire group could them speak the same language about fire and fire management.
The service learning participants left the kids at home for this trip, but were hard at work during their stay in town. They also had some time for sightseeing and learning the historical significance of sites around West.
The Elfuns received the same great opportunity to learn about fire, visited the Smokejumper base located on the grounds of the Yellowstone Airport and took a wildlife tour through Yellowstone National Park. They also learned about the historic 1988 fires in the park in their spare time.
"It really has come together nicely," Hicks said.
Retirees and their spouses, like Bill and Donna Stevens from Austin, Texas, who have been on three trips, enjoy spending their time in new places and lending it to community service.
"I like being able to help out for a worthy project," Bill Stevens said as he worked on the front porch of the building.
Helping to restore the ranger station center marked the 10th trip made by Gene Bratton and his wife, Jean.
They traveled all the way across the country from South Carolina just to participate in this project in West Yellowstone.
He seemed right at home and not the slightest bit upset by rainy weather as he cut out risers from a piece of wood that would later serve as risers for a set of steps. Bratton stayed warm and dry, bundled up in a yellow rain poncho and standing under a tarp at his work station, as he measured the wood.
"I think for us it's seeing different places and the sense of helping out other people we meet," Gene Bratton said. "We're usually working with some people we've worked with before."
The group of 19 equaled an ideal number of people to divide into small teams to complete projects like carefully laying down subflooring and painting the front deck of the ranger station.
Some volunteers made the best of rainy weather during their stay in West Yellowstone and created a new informational brochure for the National Smokejumper Center outlining the mission statement and the benefits of the Junior Smokejumper program held each summer. The program is for children ages six to 12.
"The Elfuns finished the front deck, replaced all the subflooring and a good third of the hardwood flooring was laid," Hicks said. "They did a really nice job and picked it up right away. I'm the one that's worn out."
The group nominated 78-year-old Dick Moe, from Wisconsin as their official spokesperson for the group.
He was busily getting ready to lay down subflooring in the main room of the ranger station on a damp Tuesday morning during the group's weeklong stay in May.
"I'm the oldest and crawling up on scaffolding," he said.
Hicks and the volunteers used special types of wood like fir to redo the tongue and groove flooring like it was originally done in the building for the restoration project.
The ranger station is a stop on the new West Yellowstone Historic Walking Tour and NSC hopes to serve as an outdoor education center as well as environmental education center for the area once renovations are complete.
Hicks predicts the Junior Smokejumper Program will be up and running again for the summer by July 1.
Some sections of flooring need to be completed and another coat of paint might need to be brushed on the boards of the deck before the center will be ready to open for the season, but Hicks couldn't have done it without the Elfuns.
"They really worked hard. They amazed me," Hicks said.
He is already proposing to host another service project next year.
"I hope to have one for the Elfun group to return in May 2012 and one for the general public in the fall of 2012, Hicks said.
The NSC gave each of the 19 Elfuns a ceramic coffee mug with the logo sporting wings and a parachute to commend them for their efforts to restore an important part of history.