It's difficult to miss them on the National Mall: They're dressed in yellow shirts and khaki pants or shorts, wear yellow ball caps with the National Park Service and Trust for the National Mall logos, and heft backpacks filled with information and, if you're thirsty, water.
These volunteers, part of the National Park Service's "Volunteers In the Parks" program, roam the sprawling Mall with its memorials and monuments, ready to provide information ranging from the nearest restrooms to the history of the memorials and monuments.
"You can always tell when you encounter people who sort of don’t know where they’re going or they’re kind of looking around like they don’t know which direction a particular museum is or a particular monument is," says Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust. "So the roving docents have really been able to help intercept people and engage them with questions and directions and ideas and history.”
If you're outgoing, comfortable with public speaking, and interested in history, you can join the ranks of these volunteers. The Trust opened 2012 with roughly three dozen VIP members in its first class, and currently is seeking applicants for another class. By year's end, Ms. Cunningham would love to be able to count 100 volunteers in yellow and khaki.
"Our recruiting has gone up really high because I think the notoriety of the program and also because we have now an army of people who know the value of it and are going out and recruiting their friends," she said last week. "My goal is to make sure that we have 100 new volunteers by the end of this year, who go through training and then get deployed on the National Mall.”
A Large Landscape With Few Rangers
The Mall spans some 1,000 acres in the heart of the District of Columbia. Stroll its grounds and you'll come upon memorials to World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Here you'll also find the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial, and the Washington Monument. There also are monuments to African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War, and to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Yet despite this large landscape and its many monuments and memorials, the National Park Service has only about 35 rangers deployed across the Mall to help visitors with their questions, according to Ms. Cunningham.
"We're working directly with the rangers to provide training to our docents and supplemental training to our docents," she replies when asked if history lessons provided Mall visitors shouldn't be delivered by Park Service interpretive rangers, not volunteers. "The reality is, on our park, at least the monumental core, is at least 700 acres. And at any given time we only have 35 rangers on that space. And those generally stay at the monuments and the memorials, so there’s just not enough bodies frankly to support the visitorship that we have.
"Our park is like any other park in the National Park System. We have 25 million people who come to the park every single year," she continued. "That’s more than Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon combined. And so as we grow the program, I think the rangers see it as added value, rather than taking away from what they do, which I think is very special."
The Trust currently is taking applications for the next class of volunteers. At the least, they ask that candidates be willing to spend two days a month -- either full days, or half-day increments -- on the Mall working with the public.
Docents will showcase the park by connecting visitors to the National Mall’s rich history, directing them to current events and describing the missions of the Trust for the National Mall and the National Mall and Memorial Parks, a unit of the National Park Service. Docent activities will include roving the Mall, giving interactive educational tours, engaging visitors and assisting the public with general inquiries and information, directions, etc."
Judging from the first class of volunteers, the program attracts strong candidates who like to share their knowledge.
"The first class we had fantastic candidates. Retirees who used to work for the federal government. We’ve had a woman from the Navy who retired, and actually a current Marine who’s going to be deployed in September," Ms. Cunningham said. "But just really a fantastic group of people who love the National Mall, are interested in history and know a little bit about history, who like engaging the public and like being supportive of the public who are visiting the National Mall."
Don't worry if your knowledge of the National Mall and its monuments and memorials isn't up to snuff. The Trust, with help from NPS rangers, will train you.
"All of the docents go through a month-long training program that does include history, and then they get a binder of materials, both on the history of the park, and then one that they can actually carry in their backpack, a small one, that they can access," said the Trust's president. "The other thing that they do encourage is for people to use the National Park Service app. Our park has got this fantastic app that provides a lot of history. So we are trying to integrate the programs as much as possible, and frankly our docents want that too."
Sound interesting? If so, you can apply at this page on the Trust's website.