50 Nifty Finds #40: Helping Hands

Although they don’t wear the National Park Service (NPS) standard uniform, volunteers are a vital part of NPS operations. Expected to be a modest program when it began in December 1970, the Volunteers-in-the-Parks (VIP) program quickly developed into a vital program to support the NPS mission. Volunteer uniforms and insignia have changed over time, but each has represented the dedication of those who freely give their time and talents for the benefit of national parks and the American people.

Extending the NPS Family

The earliest NPS volunteers were the wives of park rangers, custodians, and superintendents who worked countless unpaid hours in support of their spouses, the NPS, and the public. More often than not, when the NPS hired a married man, it got two for the price of one. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the idea for a formal NPS volunteer program came from Helen Hartzog, the wife of Director George B. Hartzog Jr. She later recalled,

People really didn’t want to retire from the Park Service. As I’ve always said, we were a family. It meant leaving the family, and none of us ever wanted to really do it. I had an idea that we should do something about this. I talked it over with George and he said, “It’s a great idea.” So, he started the Volunteers in Parks program.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. New legislation was needed to allow the NPS to accept volunteer services. Plans for the VIP program were circulated to NPS field staff and labor unions for comment and discussed in Congressional committees. Testifying before Congress, Director Hartzog (overlooking the significant but informal role of park wives) stated,

We have in the past occasionally accepted services of private citizens on a non-appointed basis but persons donating their services have been required to waive liability of the United States for injury sustained during performance of volunteer services and to agree that they were not employees of the United States and therefore personally liable to others for injuries caused by their volunteer activities. It is a burden which individuals cannot accept, and it is one that we think should be removed in order to encourage our citizens to participate more actively in these programs.

George and Helen Hartzog in formal clothes pose for a photo.
George and Helen Hartzog, creators of the NPS VIP program, October 1964. (NPS History Collection photo by M. Woodbridge Williams, HFCA 1607)

Hartzog admitted in his opening statement that union representatives had expressed hesitation that the program might be used to replace employees. He assured the committee that it would not. He also noted that the American Federation of Government Employees had issued a statement calling the Act a “golden opportunity.” The order that “The Secretary shall not permit the use of volunteers to displace any employee” encouraged passage of the Volunteers in the Parks Act of 1969 (now 54 U.S. Code § 102301).

The law provided the authority needed to recruit, train, and accept the free services of volunteers. It also allowed funding to be spent to support the program. The legislation specifically notes that volunteers should work “in aid of interpretive functions and other visitor services or activities.” Volunteers were not allowed to do hazardous duty or law enforcement work or be involved in the policy-making process.

Newspaper articles announcing the new program noted that it was open to “talented and knowledgeable people” to work as “arts and crafts demonstrators, environmental assistants to help give children and adults an appreciation of nature, deputy park rangers, research assistants in history, archeology, and natural science, interpretive assistants, living history interpreters, and guides.” The deputy park ranger role is perhaps the most curious, but it was only defined as serving in “wildlife management and law enforcement” and limited to adults “who are highly qualified by background and training.”

In general volunteers were expected to meet the standards that applied to seasonal employees, except for education. Director Hartzog stressed that they would not replace employees or be used in maintenance work. Volunteers could be reimbursed for uniforms or period costumes, training, meals, local transportation, and other incidental fees.

An Instant Success

The initial estimate was that 300 volunteers could be found, trained, and put to work in the program’s first year. Instead, 900 volunteers signed up in the first six months. Within two years, more than 6,000 VIPs were working in parks. From the formal beginning of the program in December 1970 through March 1973, 427,515 hours were donated by park volunteers. NPS Director Ronald H. Walker noted in a July 9, 1973, article in the NPS Newsletter that,

The number of volunteers working for national parks almost equals the number of permanent NPS employees. Their days and hours are less of course, but their understanding, their appreciation, their dedication and that hard to define but very real mystique are the same as [employees]. They make a difference!

gray volunteer vest with volunteer patch
Early volunteer vest designed by Independence National Historical Park. Worn by Addie-Lou Cawood from ca. 1974-1991. (NPS History Collection, HFCA 2364)

The VIP program’s success continued. In fiscal year 1974 over 5,000 VIPs worked in 145 NPS areas. They contributed more than 306,000 hours of work, 48 percent of which were in living history interpretation, 24 percent in other forms of interpretation, 16 percent in resource management, and 12 percent in other activities. Most were locals living near the parks they served.

Jim Corson, VIP program coordinator, wrote on April 2, 1973, that the ideal volunteer job will be interesting and educational, part-time, supplement regular activities, and “not include regular maintenance.” He noted that “we cannot do maintenance with volunteers primarily because we promised the Congress and the labor unions that we would not. It is not against the law, but it is against our early plans and commitments.”

With the program’s surging success, it became increasingly important to distinguish between VIPs and NPS employees for the public.

The Burnt Orange and Beige Years

orange smock with white trim shown on a mannequin
The Pop-on, the first NPS volunteer uniform. (NPS History Collection, HFCA 571)

The first approved volunteer uniform was the orange “pop-on” smock designed as part of the women’s uniform, approved in December 1970 just as the VIP program began. It was “popped on” over women’s street clothes. The uniform regulations noted that “anyone assigned on a volunteer basis within the park to public contact duties is authorized to wear the Pop-on.” The NPS arrowhead patch was used as the insignia.

It’s not known how many women wore this uniform. Helen Hartzog did (hers is part of the NPS History Collection). VIPs Betty Roan, Florence Birdsell, Diane Crider, and Terry Allen at Mound City Group (now Hopewell Culture National Historical Park) wore the pop-on in 1972 and 1973. (Incidentally, Birdsell was the superintendent’s mother.)

There wasn’t an equivalent of the pop-on for male volunteers. Superintendents had the authority to determine what their volunteers wore. Many parks dressed both men and women in their respective employee uniforms. A newspaper article from 1972 includes photographs of 16- and 17-year-old boys and 17- and 18-year-old girls volunteering for the summer at Muir Woods National Monument. The boys wear the standard “green and gray” men’s uniform and the girls the beige dress of the women’s uniform. The girls’ primary duties were at the information desk, although one also created an herbarium collection for the park. The boys served as roving interpreters and developed education programs.

Ovoid shaped patch with NPS arrowhead and Volunteer
NPS volunteer patch introduced in 1974. (NPS History Collection, HFCA 947)

An Emblem of Their Own

The earliest volunteer patch was illustrated in the 1974 uniform regulations. That patch features the NPS arrowhead with the word “volunteer” over it in white, all on a field of green. The patch is vaguely ovoid, coming to a point at the bottom, and outlined in yellow stitching.

The February 1974 NPS Uniform Standards left a lot of discretion regarding what volunteers should wear, noting that they would “be clad according to the best interests of the park in which they work and at the expense of VIP or park funds. The Superintendent will determine what is adequate and relevant and which might well include costume or period dress.”

When first introduced, the volunteer patch wasn’t mandatory. The regulations stated, “Identification may consist of a patch to be worn on the left shoulder one inch below the shoulder seam in the middle of the arm. It can also be used on a small buttonless vest in lieu of attaching to shirts. The patch is not appropriate on costumes.”

Green tag with Volunteer in white letters
Early volunteer nametags didn't include the person's name. (NPS History Collection, HFCA 1057)
Name tags were also optional. The regulations stated, “If it is considered to be desirable, further identification will be a name plate to be worn on blouse, shirt, or costume at the most convenient location to be readily visible. On some costumes, it may not be appropriate.” When used, it was green laminated plastic with white letters.

Superintendents still had the authority to determine if VIPs should wear any NPS uniform item. Factors considered included the kind of work, amount and type of public contact, availability of funds, and anticipated length of service.
A waist-length gold vest next to a hip length one.
VIP vests, introduced in 1975. (NPS History Collection, HFCA 948, HFCA 768)

The Golden Years

In response to volunteers wearing the NPS uniform, a “distinctive cardigan vest” was created for volunteers in 1975. The August 13, 1975, edition of the National Park Service Newsletter announced its creation noting, “The vests replace any part of the NPS uniform currently being worn by VIPs.” It was described as “sunny gold, trimmed in loden green with two roomy pockets.”

Vests were created for men and women and worn over street clothes appropriate to the volunteer’s work. The men’s vest was waist length while the women’s was hip length and had a fabric belt. They were made of double-knit polyester, and the volunteer patch was sewn onto the left front of the bodice. Lee Career Wear (now the Lee Apparel Company) in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, supplied the vests. Parks could use VIP funds to buy them, or volunteers could order them directly. The men’s vest cost $10 and the women’s $12.

Man in gold vest points in conversation with another man
VIP Joseph Frankeau, wearing the men’s gold volunteer vest, talks to a visitor. Note the volunteer patch and the green laminate nametag with his name on it pinned to the vest. (NPS History Collection, HFCA 1607)

The NPS recognized that these vests weren’t appropriate for all public contact situations. VIPs engaged in living history continued to wear period costumes. Volunteers working in the backcountry or doing “rugged work” were to wear a field uniform of dark green work pants or Levis and a khaki shirt with the volunteer patch on the left sleeve, just below the shoulder. If working outdoors in cool weather, VIPs could wear a yellow nylon windbreaker with the patch on the left sleeve.

The October 1977 Uniform Standards made these requirements official, with a few changes. The vest was required when the volunteer’s primary duty involved visitor contact. It was also authorized to wear over the field uniform when VIPs engaged in activities that included contact with visitors. In addition, the regulations added a new VIP “seashore uniform” consisting of Bermuda shorts and a white short-sleeved shirt with the volunteer patch on the left front. An optional white visor could also be worn with this uniform. The yellow nylon windbreaker was replaced by an optional dark green. A jacket or parka appropriate to weather conditions could also be worn. Although not mentioned in the regulations, yellow baseball hats with the volunteer patch were also worn.

The uniform regulations clearly stated, “Volunteers do not wear any part of the regulation NPS uniform.”

Two green volunteer vests, one hip length and one waist length
NPS green volunteer vests. (NPS History Collection, HFCA 602, HFCA-01020)

Going Green

New NPS uniform standards issued for 1981–1982 made two significant changes to the VIP uniform. Although historic costume and field uniform options remained unchanged, the volunteer vest became green with gold trim. The seashore uniform abandoned the all-white look for forest green Bermuda shorts and a khaki short-sleeved shirt with volunteer patch on left front. The optional white sun visor could still be worn. The standards for the optional jackets and volunteer vest remained the same.

A 1983 newspaper article describes the standard volunteer uniform as dark green pants or skirts and khaki shirts with “vests available in the parks.”

Racing Forward

In 1981 8,326 VIPs donated 503,000 hours to the NPS. As NPS budgets began to shrink in the 1980s, the NPS recognized that it would need to rely increasingly on the assistance of volunteers. In 1982 NPS Director Russell E. Dickenson lifted the prohibition on the use of VIPs for maintenance work. Superintendents and managers were also directed to consider greater use of volunteers to improve efficiency. At the same time, the NPS still had a legal requirement to ensure that volunteers didn’t replace employees. The 1982 VIP program handbook stressed,

The use of volunteers is a viable means of accomplishing your park's goals. Keep in mind, however, that they must not be used to displace paid employees. Volunteers may be assigned any work identified as part of your park's unfunded work backlog, work that, because of personnel or funding limitations, would absolutely not get done if volunteers did not do it. Volunteers can provide assistance on needed tasks that your paid staff cannot get to. Valuable, behind-the-scenes volunteer contributions can free up paid staff for more upfront critical services.

As the program accelerated, more variation in VIP uniforms was seen. The 1982 handbook noted, “The common denominator that identifies all NPS volunteers is the Volunteer in Parks identification badge. The revised guidelines provide considerable flexibility as to what other identifying clothing volunteers can wear.” The only prohibition was that volunteers couldn’t wear "any part of the regular NPS uniform." Uniforms also had to be dissimilar to the standard uniform and reflect favorably on the NPS. Other considerations were that it was appropriate and/or functional for the task involved, reasonably priced, and helped build "esprit de corps" among the volunteers.

Khaki short sleeves shirt with volunteer patch
Khaki volunteer shirt with patch worn by Ken Greenspan at Sequoia National Park, ca. 1994-2003. (NPS History Collection, HFCA-02069)

Volunteers at Wolf Trap Farm Park designed their own fluorescent green and white vests, which made them much more visible to the public. At Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site they wore blue smocks to protect their clothes. In 1984 volunteers at Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site (now a national historical park) wore t-shirts or gold shirts, depending upon position, with a specially designed logo of Dr. King growing out of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood on the front and the volunteer patch on the sleeve. Other parks provided vests and baseball caps with the volunteer patches on them, and many VIPs continued to wear period clothing for living history programs.

By 1984 the number of VIPs had increased to 28,000, more than three times what it was in 1981. In 1985 more than 1.5 million hours were given to the NPS by volunteers. In October 1986 NPS Director William Penn Mott Jr supported legislation to allow VIPs to collect entrance fees for the first time. In 1988 more than 44,000 people joined the VIP program. International VIPs were also added to the corps in the late 1980s. Eventually a formal International Volunteer-in-Parks (IVIP) program was created.

The large number of articles about VIP projects and contributions in NPS newsletters throughout the 1980s and 1990s reflects the increasing reliance on volunteers. In April 1989 James M. Ridenour became NPS director. The next month he wrote, “Although the Service is well known for its effective volunteer programs, I want to see us increase and expand in this area.” One initiative was the creation of the NPS Employee Volunteer Service Program. Dubbed “Mather’s Volunteers,” the program encouraged employees (and their families) to volunteer at parks during their vacations. Employees had to take annual leave, pay their own transportation to the park, and work in a different capacity from the one in which they were employed. No information on the success of this program has been found.

Volunteer badge "John Doe" with recognition for 100 hours below
VIP name tag design sample with recognition bar for 100 hours of service, 2004. (NPS History Collection, HFCA 2356, HFCA 2353)

Changes for a New Century

In retirement the Hartzogs played another important role in the VIP program. Witnessing 30 years of the program’s accomplishments, Helen Hartzog determined that volunteers deserved formal recognition for their efforts. She suggested this to her husband, who wholeheartedly agreed. In 2001 they donated money to the National Park Foundation to establish the George and Helen Hartzog Awards for Outstanding Volunteer Service, now known as the the Excellence in Volunteerism Award.

The new millennium brought other changes as well. The new NPS uniform contract, awarded in 2000, included new volunteer gold-plated brass name bars. They debuted in the 2004 uniform catalog and featured an enameled version of the original ovoid volunteer logo. A recognition bar could be added below the name bar, identifying length of the volunteer’s service.

Two volunteer patches, one with blue border and one with red
Volunteer and master ranger corps patches, created in 2004. (NPS History Collection, HFCA-01255)

Most significantly the volunteer patch, in use since 1974, was redesigned. Two new circular designs with the NPS arrowhead in the center became the official insignia for the program on January 1, 2004. It’s not clear why this logo wasn’t added to the volunteer name bars until 2007. When the new patch was authorized, parks were directed to “destroy or dispose of the old patches,” but there was a two-year transition period to the new patches.

In 2004 the standard VIP patch (green border) was given to every volunteer. Those who completed at least 500 hours of service per year or were members of a specialized VIP group such as Artists-In-Residence, Geoscientists-In-Parks (GIP), Volunteer Laureate program, Volunteer Senior Ranger Corps, or Trails and Rails program received the Master Ranger Corps patch (red border). The patch was the required uniform element for volunteers at the national level. Park superintendents determined additional local volunteer uniform requirements.

In 2006 optional unisex dark brown winter coats and fleece-lined vests, previously bought on contract at the park level, were made available through the NPS uniform catalog. In 2007 a dark brown, snap-on hood for the coat was added, and the vest was replaced with a unisex dark brown fleece jacket.

In 2022 the Master Ranger Corps and Volunteer Emeritus patches were eliminated. The volunteer insignia is now available as either a patch (2.25-inch for a hat and 3-inch sizes for a shirt) or sticker. Superintendents or managers designate a standard volunteer uniform designed to meet particular needs and conditions. VIP insignia must be worn on either the sleeve of a shirt or on a hat. The VIP sticker can be worn on a hardhat. The volunteer's name is also displayed on the shirt, using either the VIP name bar (with an optional hour/year recognition attachment), a VIP cloth patch, or a local name bar or name tag developed by the park or program. A small, circular enameled lapel pin in the form of the VIP insignia can also be worn as part of the uniform.

Volunteers continue to be an essential part of the NPS mission. In 2023 more than 123,000 volunteers donated over 3.7 million hours of service.


--. (1971, January 21). “VIP Posts for Parks Volunteers.” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), p. 48.

--. (1971, February 6) “Parks open to VIPs.” Tucson Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), p. 30.Assembled Historic Records of the NPS (HFCA 1645). NPS History Collection, Harpers Ferry, WV.

Burnett, Jim. (2010, May 18). “Hartzog Awards for Outstanding Volunteer Service Show Citizens Can Make a Big Difference for Parks.” National Parks Traveller. Available online at

Corman, Patrick. (1972, August 4). “Student Volunteers Serve Muir Woods.” Daily Independent Journal (San Raphael, California), p. 25.

Dolinich, Peggy. (1989, September). “Mather’s Volunteers.” Courier: Newsmagazine of the National Park Service, Vol. 34, No. 9, p. 17. NPS History Collection (HFCA 1645), Harpers Ferry, WV. Available online at

Flor, Dorothy-Anne. (1986, June). “National Park Service VIPs.” Courier: The National Park Service Newsletter, Vol. 31, No. 6, pp. 15-17. NPS History Collection (HFCA 1645), Harpers Ferry, WV. Available online at

Graybill, Roy. (1982, August). “Role of VIPs Expanded.” Courier: The National Park Service Newsletter. NPS History Collection (HFCA 1645), Harpers Ferry, WV. Available online at

Hartzog, Helen C. (2009, August 11). Oral history interview with Dr. Lu Ann Jones. NPS Oral History Collection (HFCA 1817), NPS History Collection, Harpers Ferry, WV.

Hartzog, Helen C. (2009, August 12). Oral history interview with Dr. Lu Ann Jones. NPS Oral History Collection (HFCA 1817), NPS History Collection, Harpers Ferry, WV.

Hartzog, Helen C. (2009, August 27). Oral history interview with Dr. Lu Ann Jones. NPS Oral History Collection (HFCA 1817), NPS History Collection, Harpers Ferry, WV.

Kalfs, Barbara. (1973, January 27). “VIPs Are Playing Important Roles in National Parks.” Chillicothe Gazette (Chillicothe, Ohio), p. 5.

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McDonnell, Janet A. (2016). “Helen Hartzog Biography.” NPS Oral History Collection (HFCA 1817), NPS History Collection, Harpers Ferry, WV.

Mott, William Penn Jr. (1989, March). “The Director’s Report.” Courier: Newsmagazine of the National Park Service, Vol. 34, No. 3, p. 1. NPS History Collection (HFCA 1645), Harpers Ferry, WV. Available online at

National Park Service. (1973, February 19). “Woman Rescuer.” NPS Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 3, p. 4. NPS History Collection (HFCA 1645), Harpers Ferry, WV.

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National Park Service. (1975, August 13). “VIPs Sport New Vests.” National Park Service Newsletter, Vol. 10, No. 13, p. 2. NPS History Collection (HFCA 1645), Harpers Ferry, WV.

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National Park Service. (1984, February). “Park Briefs.” Courier: The National Park Service Newsletter, Vol. 29, No. 2, p. 9. NPS History Collection (HFCA 1645), Harpers Ferry, WV. Available online at

National Park Service. (1986). Annual Report 1985. National Park Service, Washington, DC. Available online at

National Park Service. (2022). Reference Manual 7 Volunteers in Parks. NPS Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers Directorate, Washington, DC.

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National Park Service. (2023). Volunteer Program FY23 Annual Report. NPS Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers Directorate, Washington, DC.

Ridenour, James M. (1989, May). “The Director’s Report.” Courier: Newsmagazine of the National Park Service, Vol. 34, No. 5, p. 1. NPS History Collection (HFCA 1645), Harpers Ferry, WV. Available online at

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Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Independence National Historical Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Last updated: January 8, 2024