Dane County Park System Grows With Huge Volunteer Support

January 11, 2021
Land & Water Resources

Contact: Darren Marsh, Dane County Parks Director
(608) 224-3766  marsh@countyofdane.com
Written by: Samantha Haas

Dane County Park System Grows With Huge Volunteer Support

MADISON, WI – January 11, 2020 - There are myriad ways for people to recreate in our parks, trails, forests and waterways. Among them, though perhaps not first to come to mind, is volunteering. Like other activities, volunteering takes many forms, and it’s also a “healthy exercise and a way to get outside and connect with others,” said Rhea Stangel-Maier, Dane County Parks Volunteer Coordinator. “Volunteers have unique personalities, but they are all recreating with their passion.”

Nearly 30 years ago, Dane County began to prioritize outdoor recreation and protecting its valued natural resource areas. At the time, Dane County had about 3,200 acres of park land. One goal of building the parks system was to formalize a Volunteer Program to help extend the reach of parks staff and bring more awareness and enrichment to a growing park system. What began in 1992 as a few hundred volunteers -- mainly individuals, small service groups and one established Friends group (Schumacher Farm Park) -- contributing 5,000 hours has multiplied more than tenfold for the benefit of our county parks.

Recent data shows that there are over 3,200 volunteers between 18 Friends groups, more than a dozen partner groups and individuals who donated over 66,755 hours in 2019. When the value of volunteer time ($25/hour as estimated by the Independent Sector) is taken into account, that translates to at least $1.6 million of volunteer contributions in 2019 alone. Since its inception, the Volunteer Program has made a $17 million impact on our parks.

In addition to the financial value volunteerism brings to the parks, volunteers also have immeasurable value through their unique skill sets and passions. Volunteer opportunities range from monitoring bluebird houses, cleaning up dog parks or researching historical aspects of a park to clearing brush, planting trees and prairie seeds or hosting recreational and educational events -- and everything in between. Volunteers also help give the parks a voice by raising awareness, advocating and fundraising for amenities and projects that might otherwise have gone unnoticed and unfunded.

Integral to the Volunteer Program’s growth and success of the park system has been Stangel-Maier, who has served as the Dane County Parks Adult Conservation Team Manager/Volunteer Coordinator since 2003. After 27 years with Dane County Parks, she plans to retire January 15, 2021.

“It’s been a wonderful career,” Stangel-Maier said. “I would like to see the Volunteer Program continue to grow, because it’s a huge resource for Dane County. We have an abundant amount of volunteers but are still looking at new ways to support them. I am excited to see the new opportunities that unfold and the new synergies, enthusiasm and ideas that will come.”

Stangel-Maier is modest and defers any recognition to the volunteers and parks staff for the tremendous growth of the program. “Stangel-Maier is a true advocate for our volunteers and the parks,” stated Parks Director Darren Marsh, adding she has invested a tremendous amount of personal time and energy into creating a premier Volunteer Program. Other county officials and volunteers reaffirm this with similar praise, describing Stangel-Maier as positive, caring and a creative conduit between volunteers and park staff. People described her as a wonderful team player and very good listener who gave wise counsel and knew how to get things done. 

“Rhea has built a parks volunteer organization of over 3,000 volunteers keeping them enthused, organized and focused on what needs to be done. Without her work our parks wouldn't be the gems they are today,” said Dave Ripp, Volunteer and Park Commission Chair.

Other longtime volunteers, such as Janet Kane with the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, have witnessed the ways in which the Volunteer Program has “increased, expanded and modernized” during Rhea’s tenure.

Some of these accomplishments include the growth of the Friends groups, Parks Endowment, Foundation for Dane County Parks, and establishment of a Volunteer Training Program, which educates volunteers on park policies, safety procedures, grant writing, and Friends group board development. In 2018, volunteers also welcomed the emergence of an annual Volunteer Summit, which provides a venue to thank volunteers and provide them an opportunity to highlight their projects, network and learn best practices from park staff and other Friends and partner groups. 

“Rhea elevated the Volunteer Program to incredible heights through hard work, endless hours and profound commitment. Her support of the Foundation for Dane County Parks has helped us grow in our work supporting our parks,” said Bill Lunney, Foundation President and former Parks Commission Chair.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on how important -- and popular -- outdoor spaces like our parks, forests, and trails are for our health and well-being. Dane County Parks saw a record high of 4 million visitors in 2020.

“Our community, the fastest growing community in the State, certainly supports parks and trails. This has never been more evident than over the last seven months with a 25% increase in park visits. As our park system has grown, so has the number of volunteers and partners supporting our park lands,” said Joe Parisi, County Executive. “Working with volunteers has been a game changer for Dane County Parks. Dane County would not have such an amazing park system without our devoted and passionate corps of volunteers and partners. I want to recognize the work of Rhea Stangel-Maier, Parks Volunteer Coordinator, who led an amazingly successful volunteer program for 18 years.”

Although Stangel-Maier had planned on retiring from this “24/7 role” in two years, the pandemic also made her “realize there are no guarantees” and helped her “reassess priorities and what was possible” for her future. When it’s safe to travel she looks forward to visiting her family down south, but she won’t be a stranger to Dane County Parks and the people with whom she’s built relationships. “I will be back to volunteer,” Stangel-Maier said. “It’s in my blood.” 

To learn more about the Volunteer Program and to get involved, visit https://danecountyparks.com/get-involved/volunteer.

If you have any questions about the Volunteer Program, please contact Deputy Parks Director Joleen Stinson at (608) 422-0657 or stinson.joleen@countyofdane.com.


The mission of the Dane County Parks Volunteer Program is to engage the community by providing opportunities in projects, events and programs; educate the public in interpretation and protection of our natural resources; and provide volunteer opportunities that give the community a sense of ownership in our public lands.