Monday, November 23, 2009

Ellis Island and the Ranger jones.

Saturday I attended volunteer training at Ellis Island, through Save Ellis Island, and I have to say, I'm pretty pumped about being involved. SEI is charged with preserving and restoring the southern side of the island, which contains the hospitals that held and cured immigrants too ill to be admitted to the country immediately. The vast majority of the buildings are unrestored and sitting idle; the only one to be opened to the public so far is the ferry building that was the final stop for immigrants on their way to New York after having successfully gone through processing in the main building. Primarily, the tour uses that building as a place to show materials from the hospital and provide a brief history.

The volunteer coordinators were downright thrilled to have us there, and they emphasized that we weren't expected to know everything immediately. In fact, to supplement the big packet of information they provided, they anticipate that each volunteer will work side-by-side with an experienced guide a few times before going out on our own. And given that we are considered to be National Park Service volunteers, we've also got to go through NPS training, too.

You'll recall that a few months ago, I went to the Island and took the tour, which I found to be pretty boring by comparison to what I expected. While Saturday's public tour covered the same locations, the guide himself provided a much more interesting and informative narrative. He emphasized more of the people aspect, noting the great work and caring of the doctors, nurses and others who provided top-notch care in the island's hospital. I'll have the opportunity to add my own perspectives to the tours I give. The Save Ellis Island people provide a basic tour outline and some information, but they anticipate that each of us will craft our own tour, based on our own interests or backgrounds. My luck, to my knowledge, none of my ancestors went through Ellis Island; my grandparents found out that only Steerage passengers went to the island, so they paid for second class passage so they'd go through the registration process onboard the ship they took to get here. Still, though, maybe there's something to be drawn from that, and who knows what else I might be able to dig up on my own or with others.

The Park Service volunteer benefits appear pretty generous -- discounts for the gift shop and food vendor on the island, plus some pull at other National Parks. (Now that I'm thinking about it, maybe that can be my key through some locked doors at Sandy Hook, and maybe some fun stuff at the Edison site.) Dork that I am, I'm also tickled to get an official volunteer patch for my shirt, and after I've put some time in, I'll get an ID badge and official shirt, too. The one downer is that we don't get the Smokey Bear hat; that's for the exclusive use of rangers. (How sad am I, I ask you.)

From a vocational perspective, I'll get a share of real-life experience on dealing with the touring public, given that I'll also be staffing the SEI information desk next to the Park Service desk before and after my tours. A ranger will nearly always be nearby, so I'll also be able to get their perspectives, too.

As of now, I start on December 3 and have a couple of other days booked, too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The wheels turn verrrrry slowly

Believe it or not, I finally heard from the Ellis Island people about volunteering at the ferry depot/unrestored side of the island. They invited me to an orientation session on November 21, which will also include an optional tour of the unrestored buildings. At this point, I decided to go to the session and then make a determination on whether I want to actually volunteer there, boring as it looks. It will be a learning opportunity, and yeah, I want to check out the creepy old buildings, too (note to self: charge battery, insert 1GB SD card and bring camera!). And I'll also get to drive over the restricted utility bridge to the island -- the one they built to get materials and equipment over there while they were doing the restoration of the main building. Sure beats having to pay $12 for the ferry every time I go out there.

So there's that. Now we'll see when the folks at the Edison site finally get around to contacting me.

I've been doing a lot of wandering around to different historic sites -- Paterson, Morristown, some closed areas of Fort Hancock, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia -- ostensibly on research. For the Jersey sites, the overwhelming impression is that there's lots of great stuff out there, and the people at the sites are really passionate about preserving and publicizing them, but there's no umbrella marketing support (or $$$$) from the state or anyone else. So I've got myself stuck on this chicken and egg thing, i.e. am I maybe the one to get that going as an aspect of a tour company, or is there no marketing support because the whole thing is just too fractioned? The marketing challenge seems ripe for the taking, but the tourguide piece in many respects is already taken by the experts at the sites themselves. Would that be fulfilling for me? Am I biting off more than I can chew? And how much time do I really have to allow for it to work? Even more important, how do I make money at it ... enough to support myself?

Part of me says that if the state isn't willing to spend on this, then go to private industry. There's some potential for getting corporations involved - companies that have a vested interest in promoting what the state has to offer, and who really need to make nice with the communities they serve. Yeah, I'm thinking utilities, some of the usual "good citizen" suspects, and so on. I'm not really sure how much funding they've still got for this kind of stuff, but it might be worth a shot.

I'm also concerned about my ability to get out and really push the concept with people who can make it happen. Despite myself, I've been cocooning, and feeling more than a little shy and too modest about what I can really achieve. And oh, yeah, worried about failure.

A new friend recently reminded me of something I'd forgotten: far better to try and fail, then never try at all. I've got to get out of the navel-gazing stage and actually MOVE on this stuff. The dark days of winter are fast approaching, which is never a good thing for me, and it's honestly a bit embarrassing that I haven't made more progress. Shame has a nasty, whiny voice and needs to put a sock in its mouth.

One last thing: I still haven't been able to book time to chat with the Princeton tour entrepreneur. Grrr. Don't know if she's just been busy, or if she had second thoughts. To the grindstone: far better to try and fail, then to never try at all.