A Legacy of Service: How One Volunteer Gave 10,000 Hours

By: Katie Brom

June 28, 2021

Category: Philanthropy

Gene Lau started volunteering at Eastman Nature Center in the winter of 1988. An ad in his local newspaper asked for help leading snowshoe hikes. “Well, I’d never done anything like that before and didn’t know anything about Eastman Nature Center, but it was minutes from my house.” Gene recalls. “I didn’t have anything better to do and it sounded fun.” 

Back in ’88, volunteering was a little different. Instead of supporting a naturalist who would lead a hike, Gene got a quick tutorial on using snowshoes, which trails to use, some history of the snowshoe and off he went with his first group! Or as Gene puts it, “People, map, snowshoes? Alright, have fun!” 

While he doesn’t quite remember what that first snowshoe hike was like, he still helps with these programs today — 33 years and a whopping 10,000 volunteer service hours later! 

Gene is the first volunteer at Three Rivers to reach 10,000 volunteer service hours. But how did he get here? I met up with him recently to ask him exactly that. 

How did you get here?

I just like to stay busy! A typical year for me includes working my seasonal day jobs and volunteering around 350 hours. My family is really supportive of me volunteering and doing things that make me happy. I also haven’t just stuck to snowshoe hikes. I like variety, so I feel like I’ve helped with just about everything over the years. I’m always willing to try something new.

What volunteer roles do you have now?

It’s varied over the years, but I mainly help with monitoring bluebird houses, historical reenactment, office support projects, event registration, maple syrup sap boiling, educational programs, prairie seed collection, and I’m on a few committees. I enjoy the balance I have between projects where I get to be by myself and getting to work with the public.

Gene helps direct park guests from a booth on a trail.

What’s your favorite volunteer role? 

I’ve always loved history. I was so happy when The Landing was added to the Park District in 2002. I’ve always enjoyed history and when they said they needed reenactment volunteers, I jumped on it! I’ve been doing Civil War reenactment since then as Sergeant Daniel Dills, a real person who joined a Minnesota regiment in 1862. I’ve gotten to know his history and have even met his great-great-great grandson! It’s fun getting into the character of Sgt. Dills. It helps people learn about the past by experiencing something that feels more real. 

Gene Lau plays the role of Sargent Daniel Dills at The Landing.

Why do you volunteer?

I like helping Three Rivers and their mission. I’ve learned an awful lot about nature and history and myself. I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone and learned how to talk to groups, how to teach people about things that I enjoy. I love it when a program participant says “Gee, I didn’t know that!” during a program.

And being active and social is important to me, so I just have fun here! That was really confirmed last year when volunteer activities and public programming were paused due to COVID. This last year was difficult, but I am grateful that there were still things I was able to get out and do, like bluebird monitoring and other projects I could work on from home. 

I also met with a few staff that work with Gene. They said the following:

“Gene is the glue. He creates this social dynamic at an event and even across the Park District that just ties everyone together.” 

     — Becca Conser, Volunteer Resources Coordinator

“I call Gene the wizard behind the scenes! Everyone seems to know him and he’s relied upon by many across the Park District.” 

     — Heather Gordon, Recreation Program Specialist

"Gene reaching 10,000 hours is a massive milestone, HOWEVER it’s really the quality of his personality and service that are so outstanding. Gene is kind, reliable, responsible, and genuinely cares about his work and the work of the Park District."

     — Angela Grill, Wildlife Biologist

Three Rivers staff and volunteers celebrate Gene Lau's 10,000 volunteer hours outdoors.
Three Rivers staff and volunteers celebrate Gene's achievement. 

Gene, any closing thoughts? 

Time flies when you’re having fun! 

Hear more about Gene in this segment from CCX media, and learn more about volunteering at Three Rivers.

About the Author

Katie Brom, author of this blog post, smiles as the camera.

Katie Brom is a Volunteer Resources Coordinator at Three Rivers Park District. She has worked for Three Rivers since 2019 and has happily held roles where nature, education and volunteerism intersect for the last 10 years. Outside of work, Katie enjoys spending time with family and immersing herself in the outdoors: hiking, botanizing and restoring her small suburban woodland.

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