March 3, 2024

Volunteer Superstars

Three locals who give back in a big way
By Kierstin Gunsberg | Oct. 7, 2023

Ask anyone working at a nonprofit how they take such great care of their northern Michigan community, and they’ll tell you it’s their volunteers behind the scenes bringing it all together.

While hundreds of folks pitch in for local nonprofits each year, the backbone of these organizations is often a steady group of retirees who trade out their day jobs for volunteer work, like keeping trailhead markers clean and visible or stacking afterschool snacks for kids in need or providing access to arts and culture programs. We caught up with the Little Traverse Conservancy, Manna Food Project, and Great Lakes Center for the Arts to hear about the superstar volunteers who are using their retirement to give back in big ways.

Stan Royalty: Preserving Paradise

“You can sit around without even realizing it,” says Stan Royalty of retirement and why he got involved with Little Traverse Conservancy three years ago. Since then, he has signed up several times each month to complete tasks as a “Land Steward” for the organization, a role that feeds his lifelong love of nature and being in the great outdoors.

The nonprofit protects and preserves accessible land and scenic areas across northern lower Michigan and maintains recreational spaces for hunting, fishing, biking, and hiking. Throughout the year, volunteers like Royalty receive training and conservation education from Little Traverse Conservancy’s staff to keep fresh on native plants and ecosystems. “They’re really the greatest organization you’d ever want to get involved with,” says Royalty, who often volunteers alongside his wife, Karen.

While Karen counts jaunts across boardwalks and uphill climbs as a bonus outdoor workout, Royalty says he’s more the type to meander “and look at everything and stop to wonder, ‘What kind of plant is this?’”

The outdoorsman gets to do his fair share of plant identification while cutting back brush from trails, trimming grass, and pulling up honeysuckle (an invasive species!). For bigger undertakings, volunteers band together to complete all-hands-on-deck projects like fence building, which Royalty recently participated in.

Once in a while, Royalty even gets to post up with trail cams to observe the comings and goings of the preservation’s wild residents. It’s something he finds far more entertaining and rewarding than vegging out on daytime reruns in retirement.

Digging his boots into the mud (and sometimes snow, as Royalty volunteers year-round) may be a rugged effort to some. But as Royalty sees it, protecting the natural resources in an area that’s reliant on nature both economically and recreationally is a way of caring for his local community. It’s also an opportunity to stay curious. “You feel like you should pay them to be able to do what you’re doing,” he concludes.

Petersen Decker: Nourishing Hearts and Souls

For the last eight years, Petersen Decker’s happy place has been between shelves of canned soup and trail mix. Though he’s based in southern Michigan, he and his wife, Marguerite, travel several times a year to Harbor Springs. When they arrive, checking in to Manna Food Project—where they’re two of over 250 volunteers—is at the top of their agenda.

The food pantry (a partner organization of Feeding America Food Bank Network) works to eliminate hunger throughout Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet Counties. It’s a cause near to Decker’s heart. As a retired military veteran whose service included tours worldwide, he saw first-hand the toll of hunger on children and families.

“It’s one thing to talk about people who are needy, people who are starving, children who are starving,” says Decker. “It’s another thing to witness it, to see it.”

With deliveries of up to 42,000 pounds of farm-fresh fruits and veggies, gallons of milk, boxes of cereal, macaroni, and more arriving at the Manna Food Project warehouse every other week, Decker is often tasked with unpacking and stacking groceries for dispersion to the organization’s local clients and partner food pantries.

Decker also stuffs backpacks for the Food 4 Kids program, which provides backpacks filled with weekend meal supplies to local students participating in free or subsidized school meals. Decker points out that the need is so great within the tri-county area that families dealing with food insecurity used to walk miles to reach a food pantry. Now, he says, the organization’s mobile food pantry project brings food to many of these clients, easing their burden while increasing accessibility to resources.

Next time Decker is Up North, he’s hoping to sign up for these delivery duties. “Wherever the military sent me, we always worked to help the community. Now I’m able to continue that in this community through Manna Food Project,” says Decker. “It’s the most rewarding thing that I, and others with the organization, could imagine. It means the world to me.”

Midge Stewart and Gary Douglas: Volunteering as a Second Act

Gary Douglas is a self-described extrovert. It’s something that’s suited him well in his volunteer role as an usher for Great Lakes Center for The Arts (GLCFA), where he greets and directs guests to their bay-blue seats before joining his wife, Midge Stewart, to enjoy the show.

Throughout the box office season, the theater hosts big-name musical guests, writer discussions, and live theatrical performances in a state-of-the-art, 525-seat theater. It’s a dream come true for Douglas, who grew up loving theater and live music.

Even before retirement, Stewart always enjoyed and sought out volunteer work. After the couple moved to the Harbor Springs area a few years ago, a friend steered the duo to volunteer at GLCFA in their retirement. Since then, they’ve attended well over two dozen events. “Every show is a different experience, every audience is a different crowd,” says Stewart who is often found front of the house, greeting and scanning tickets.

Though getting to stay for the performances is a huge perk, Douglas says his favorite moments are ones interacting with the audience before the lights go down or when they come back up.

At a recent show, he observed a couple reluctantly navigating toward their seats rows apart. They’d accidentally purchased tickets that would separate them for the entirety of the performance, something Douglas knew would sour what was supposed to be a memorable shared experience. Just as the lights were about to go down, Douglas pulled the forlorn pair to the side and told them he’d be right back.

After hurrying to the box office manager to explain the situation, Douglas returned to the couple with two box tickets that were a major upgrade from their original seats, and, best of all, right next to each other. “I sat them together in a box, and they were thrilled,” says Gary. “That was a really good day.”

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