Dean and Sandi Patterson are the first couple to take advantage of a program that lets them stay free at Marion Reservoir while helping rangers.
They spent six weeks at Hillsboro Cove in 2004 and liked it so much, they went back home to Hesston, sold their house, and became full-time RVers in the program.
Volunteers bring their own RVs and are asked to serve a minimum of six weeks at a time. The length of service is negotiable.
The Pattersons serve at Hillsboro Cove from March 15 to Nov. 15 each year and are expected to contribute 20 hours of labor a week.
They sometimes spend winter at the cove, as well. They are not required to do anything then, but they volunteer as camp hosts after gatekeepers leave in mid-October. They check on campers and make sure things are in order.
Both have full-time jobs. Dean works at Bradbury Industries in Moundridge. Sandi is a nurse at Salem Home in Hillsboro.
Living at the reservoir has benefits.
“The most fun thing is that you see lots of wildlife,” Sandi said.
Dean erected three purple martin houses.
Because they have been there for several years, the Pattersons recognize many repeat campers by face and have made new friends.
The couple has established friendships with Corps employees, as well. They consider Marion Reservoir their home and do most of their shopping and eating out in Marion and Hillsboro. Sandi regularly does laundry in Marion and often meets campers there.
“We have found prices to be comparable, even cheaper or competitive with larger towns,” Sandi said.
They are regular customers of Jirak Produce, which sells fruits and vegetables in Marion every Saturday morning.
“The only thing I miss about our house is my garden,” Dean said. “But Francis Jirak makes up for it.”
Their two grandsons, ages 12 and 7, come often from Moundridge and reap the benefits of having grandparents who live at the reservoir.
They are 4-H members and recently made a project out of helping Grandpa clear brush and saplings to provide bank fishing for visitors.
They also ride bikes, play in the park, and get treats from the “Popsicle Lady,” a gatekeeper at Hillsboro Cove.
Their grandparents bought a tree for each of them and a granddaughter in Ohio to plant at the reservoir.
When the couple gave up their house and moved to Hillsboro Cove, they discovered they needed a home address. The postal service does not serve campers, so they made the Corps office their home address. They also have a post office box in Hillsboro.
Dean and Sandi plan to retire from their jobs in a year or two. Dean said they may look for volunteer jobs in Texas during winter months.
Whatever else they do, the Pattersons plan always to come back to Marion Reservoir, where they can be close to family while enjoying outdoor life among friends.
The Pattersons and four other volunteers work closely with facility maintenance inspector Alan Peters. They do painting, staining, and light carpentry, and pick up litter.
The Pattersons also maintain and water flower beds and trees at Hillsboro Cove, the overlook, and the spillway.
They try to keep a low profile during weekends and do their work during the week, when campers aren’t in abundance, so as not to interfere with visitors’ stays. That has proved difficult this summer, with more campers being there than usual, Sandi said.
They assist with the Muzzleloader Deer Hunt for disabled hunters every fall at French Creek Cove under the direction of Ranger Neal Whittaker and Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks officer Marvin Peterson. Office assistant Torey Hett and Marion Lake Association also are involved.
The Pattersons also help with the annual Kid Safe Clinic and boat inspections and safety. They maintain informational bulletin boards and keep boat ramp envelopes full.
“We perform these duties to assist the rangers, so they can take care of all their responsibilities,” Sandi said.
When violent weather approaches, the Pattersons assist with evacuation of campers to a safe area inside the dam. This spring, they made three trips to the storm shelter.
The Corps recently presented them with it’s Commander’s Award for Excellence.