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My Volunteer Experience with FOTS

June 3, 2018

Guest blog post courtesy of Mary Duggan, University of Tennessee ’18

My name is Mary Duggan and for the past five months I have been volunteering with Friends of the Smokies in the marketing department.

I just graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.S. in communications, majoring in public relations with a sustainability minor. I am incredibly passionate about the outdoors, especially Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s why I chose to reach out to Friends of the Smokies this past December and see if they could use any help.

I grew up in East Tennessee in Alcoa. I actually didn’t spend much time in the Smokies as a kid, aside from occasional trips to Cades Cove. It wasn’t until high school that I started regularly going to the Smokies to hike with friends. I fell in love on those trips and have felt a connection to the park ever since.

I love how you can go to different areas of the park and each area has its own unique characteristics while still feeling connected to the entire park. I especially love long, hard hikes that lead to panoramic views and leave your legs aching at the end of the day.

Discovering FOTS

I first found out about Friends of the Smokies after my freshman year of college. I had a friend who found out about Trails Forever, so that summer we decided to spend our Wednesday mornings and afternoons driving to Alum Cave Trail and pruning shrubs and breaking up rocks. We got to meet a lot of different groups working on the trail and got to learn about preservation of the parks.

That experience created curiosity in me about maintenance and conservation of natural spaces.

Connecting college courses with interest in the outdoors

I started looking into courses at UT where I could learn more about nature and took my first conservation class. That made up my mind that no matter what I did later on in life, it was going to involve the outdoors in some way. At the same time, I fell in love with the public relations major and all I could learn from those courses, so I decided to combine the two.

While at UT, I started working at the University of Tennessee Outdoor Program at the outdoor center and climbing wall and also as a trip leader. I also volunteered at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont with their marketing department the semester before I started at Friends. I wanted to make sure every experience I got in college was unique to what I want to pursue in life and would give me experience with the kinds of organizations I want to work for one day.

Benefits of being FOTS volunteer

My time at Friends of the Smokies has been great for so many reasons. The staff here is amazing and everyone is always working hard figuring out how to improve the organization.

I have gotten to learn a lot about communicating to the public as a nonprofit and see how small decisions can make a big impact on how successful they are. Plus there are always dogs hanging around the office which makes any day I come to the office much, much better!

Another thing I have taken away from this experience is that behind every organization is hardworking people.

I was so nervous to reach out and ask about working with Friends of the Smokies because it’s an organization that does such important work. Now that I have been in the office, I realize that there was never any reason to feel intimidated.

They are an organization that does really important work, but all of that work is done by people who are always helping each other out and who are so incredibly friendly. They work hard because they want to do their best to protect and preserve the Park.

I understand the importance of marketing and communications department much more now.

The work Friends of the Smokies is able to do wouldn’t be possible without the support of the others and that support is directly tied to marketing and communications efforts.

The mile or so of trail I helped work on three years ago would still be rocky and overgrown if the money hadn’t been raised to support the Trails Forever Program. I hope the work I have done at Friends has been able to contribute to the success of Friends and the success of the Park.

I am thankful for my time here during my last semester in college. It was a nice break from the monotony of school work. Coming twice a week and doing work that was benefitting an organization helped me see why my years of education have been important. I know that my time here has prepared me for whatever I choose to do in the future.

For now, I am going to be starting an internship with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia this summer doing public relations. I know that without my experience with nonprofits, I wouldn’t have been given this new opportunity. I am so grateful for that.

I have loved my time at Friends of the Smokies and doing my part to leave the Park a better place. I can’t wait to come back and spend time in the Smokies again!