Chesterton Tribune

Photo: Lakeshore volunteer Angel Gochee wins national award

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Volunteer of the Year: Angel Gochee of Porter, a volunteer at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Dunes State Park, has won a national award for her volunteerism. She is shown here cooking at the woodstove at the Chellberg Farm.           (Tribune photo by Dana Gilbertson)


Eighteen years ago, a young microbiologist from Indiana University Northwest helped conduct a species inventory at Miller Woods as part of the planning for the Paul H. Douglas Environmental Education Center.

That initial in-kind work launched Angel Gochee of Porter into a world of volunteerism at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park, where she now puts in more than 500 hours a year.

She’s an expert woodstove cook, gardener extraordinaire, animal feeder, canner, lead volunteer recruiter, festival helper, and event organizer, among other roles. One of the programs she’s developed from the ground up is the wildly popular, upcoming Historic Halloween Fun, which now is the National Lakeshore’s third most attended event.

Her husband, Cliff, who works in the Interpretive Division of the National Lakeshore, said Angel has become such an integral part of the National Lakeshore that park staffers sometimes forget she’s a volunteer who has a professional outside job.

“She’s so much a part of interpretation, I can’t imagine the National Lakeshore interpretation operation without her,” he said.

Gochee’s efforts certainly don’t go unnoticed by the National Lakeshore or state park, but she’s now earned the recognition of her peers nationwide.

She is the 2002 recipient of the National Association for Interpretation Outstanding Interpretive Volunteer Award, a national honor given to a volunteer in interpretation whose educational background and professional work is in a different field.

The announcement took her by surprise – after all, she said, more than 4,000 parks, zoos, and museums across the nation get to nominate their volunteers for the annual award. Some volunteers elsewhere, she said, are so skilled that they actually are museum tour guides, for example.

“I thought, I’m just one volunteer. Why would a little ol’ gardener from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore get the award?” she said.

But in early November, Angel, accompanied by Cliff and a small “fan club” of park interpreters, will travel to Virginia Beach, Va., to accept the honor.

From Shabbona to Chellberg

Gochee grew up in Shabbona, Ill., a slice of rural Americana in north-central Illinois that used to have about 500 people when she was a kid. Her parents still live there, but Gochee noted the population has now grown to about 700.

Shabbona is named after Chief Shabbona, who came to the Illinois community after leaving the Indiana Dunes. He more than knew Joseph Bailly, this area’s first white permanent settler. Bailly’s wife, Marie, was Shabbona’s relative. Angel said they might have been siblings, possibly even twins. Cliff said at the very least, they were cousins.

Gochee, of course, had no clue growing up in Shabbona that a major part of her adult life would revolve around teaching others about 1900-era farm life on Chief Shabbona’s old territory in Indiana.

Gochee’s volunteerism combines her obvious friendliness and people skills with her understanding and appreciation for the past – including her own.

She said her father ingrained in his children the idea that no one is remembered for what they take out of life, only what they give back. Accordingly, when Gochee was growing up, she thought nothing about mowing the lawn at the church or making the bed every morning for an elderly widower, taking him food as well.

She also grew up with a first-hand knowledge of the old ways. Her grandmother, for example, always had an outhouse; the house didn’t get indoor plumbing until well after she died in 1972.

Gochee said she grew up thinking that that’s just how older people lived.

As a farm girl, she fed animals, gardened, and canned. She also watched as her grandmother cooked in a woodstove – a skill she herself would master years later.

‘A Tireless Volunteer’

Gochee had been a microbiologist at IUN for about two years when, in 1984, the call came out that the National Lakeshore needed a scientific survey of plants and animals at Miller Woods in order to plan for the construction of the Douglas Center. The work would be done without pay.

Gochee, then of Hobart, thought the experience would be good. “I was new. I was young and impressionable,” she said.

She had already been familiar with the Indiana Dunes. When she came for her job interview at IUN, a botanist took her to the dunes to demonstrate its rich plant life, one reason why she wanted to work in this area.

After the Miller Woods survey, Gochee soon landed herself in the National Lakeshore’s library, which at the time was about half way through the process of converting from Dewey Decimal to the Library of Congress system. Due to budget cuts, the National Lakeshore had to lay off the staffer who was doing the restructuring.

As a scientist and educator, Gochee knew the importance of libraries -- and she knew how to do the conversion. She recalled that she worked on that project every Friday for two years straight.

She jumped from offering the National Lakeshore her scientific know-how to becoming an all-around volunteer – or, as she put it, “doing things I already knew to learning more for myself” -- around Memorial Day one year.

Cliff, then only a friend, was in a bind after someone called off sick at the Visitor Center. Angel offered to work the desk. She figured if all that was needed was to tell people where to go, she could do it.

“Teachers are good at that,” she said.

It was trial by fire. More than 500 people came through the doors by noon, mainly wanting to know where the beach or the restrooms are.

Gochee soon returned to farm life by volunteering at the Chellberg Farm, where she was impressed by the women cooking on the woodstove. Under the guidance of Pat Scott, she learned how to be a woodstove cook, knowing that she mastered the skill after successfully baking a pie.

The trick to using wood for fuel, she said, is to maintain an even fire.

“It’s all a matter of being more attentive. And you work hard,” she said, adding that on days when she cooks at the farm, it’s understood she’s not going to cook again at home.

Gochee’s volunteerism is diverse. She coordinates the threshing dinner for the Duneland Harvest Festival. She’s vice-chair of the Friends of the Indiana Dunes Board and helps put out the Singing Sands Almanac. She directs traffic at festivals and recruits others to help out.

Further, she spearheaded the native plant garden outside the visitor center as a living memorial to the late Friends president Christine Kostel. She helped propagate seedlings of the rare and threatened Northern White Cedar in her greenhouse. She’s coordinated the Harvest Festival’s candle dipping demonstration. She’s secured grants for park habitat restoration.

She’s developed her own programs, including “Apples, Apples, Apples,” which demonstrates the many uses of apples historically, and Historic Halloween Fun, which is a safe, family-oriented program.

In nomination letters for the NAI award, park staffers glowingly praised Gochee’s work.

“Because Angel’s interpretive style is warm, friendly, and down to earth, visitors are comfortable asking questions,” wrote Deanna Ochs and Jennifer Lute of the National Lakeshore. “Children and adults alike can relate to her sense of humor; they leave with a smile and better understanding of historic farm life.”

“Angel is an enthusiastic and tireless volunteer. She is always eager to make our programs here at the Indiana Dunes State Park the best they can possibly be,” wrote property manager Doug Wickersham.

“She is always willing to extend a helping hand and ‘go the extra mile’” for the two parks,” wrote National Lakeshore’s Laura Gundrum, Gochee’s nominator for the award.

Gochee said she highly recommends volunteerism to anyone, even people whose lives are already busy with work or family.

“I think you get a lot of satisfaction out of volunteering,” she said. When kids leave the park excited about what they just learned, she said, “I know I’ve made a difference.”

She added: “No one’s too busy that they don’t have time to help others.”


Posted 10/18/2002