“A Year To Volunteer” Provides RVers With Purpose
Phil and Shar Roos have ninja skills that are on point. They come and go from their volunteer projects with stealth, leaving behind not chaos and confusion…but smiles, happy tears, and tons of new friends. Phil and Shar aren’t your average full time RVers, they are the brains behind A Year to Volunteer, a newly minted 501C3 that is traveling the US providing building and clean-up projects.
“We like to say we swoop in and swoop out like a bunch of Ninjas in the night because we don’t want any organization to feel like they owe us anything,” Phil said. “We want to give, with the expectation of nothing in return. That’s the purest form of volunteering.” Shar added. These volunteer Ninjas have something good going, and have no desire to let anything get in the way, including egos.
A Year to Volunteer began with an RV
Just a few years ago, Phil was preparing to retire from a 36-year career in the Navy. At the time, he was running the Navy and Marine Corp ROTC programs at Arizona State University.
“Basically, I knew I was going to retire and I had a moment in March 2018 where I thought, ‘I think I’m hitting my mid-life crisis.’ I didn’t know what I wanted to do because the only thing I’ve ever known, even before becoming an adult, was the Navy. Here I stood at the doorstep of life’s 2nd chapter and I had no idea what was next,” Phil said.
Phil had started a small side hustle in embroidery; digitizing and embroidery designs for shirts and caps and such. While he was working, he would watch YouTube videos to keep himself entertained. He found a video blog called Gone With the Wynns about a couple who started out RVing and then switched to sailing on a catamaran.
“I got captured by that. I was trying to find something else besides just working in a cubicle – working in an office job,” he said. “I could not see myself doing a typical job. I started looking at the money side of it to see if we could pull it off and I realized we could. So, I approached Shar and I said, ‘What would you think if we got ourselves a sailboat and started sailing around the world?’” Laughing, Shar said, “I was thinking, ‘Have we met?’ NO! I’m not a water person. We go to Hawaii and I sit on the beach and look at the ocean. I never go in.”
“That died so fast. She said she would do RVing, but she wouldn’t sail around the world. So, I started looking into the whole RVing thing,” Phil added.
Retirement is not about the money anymore
Fast forward to that July. Shar was an insurance services agent with a good business, but as she explained, it is a very negative career. No one is ever happy because they don’t feel like they get paid enough for their claim, or their rates have gone up. She was always the bad guy.
“I had a life changing moment,” she explained. “I was helping several clients plan for their retirement and they were getting close. They wanted to wait until full retirement age. How much more would they get if they waited one more year? The one that was so memorable to me, and I still remember his name. He was still paying for his daughter’s college. He wanted to wait one extra year to get a little bit more from Social Security. So, he waited and he died two weeks before he got his first retirement check.
“All of a sudden, life kind of flashed before me. We’re putting off all the things that we wanted to do for ‘someday’ when one of us could die, or one of us could get sick. One, or both of us, may not be able to physically do all the things that we have been waiting all this time to do. So, we looked at it again and we said we have lots in savings and once we get to retirement, we will actually get a pay raise. Life’s too short. Let’s just do it now and then maybe if we get tired of it we will go back to work. Work’s always going to be there. We can always go back and do something later but let’s not hold off until later what we want to do today.”
Phil said Shar came home after a bad day at work and declared to him, “It’s not about the money anymore.”
“She’s always worked for herself. She’s always chased her own financial footing. She’s done everything on her own and so when she said that I was like, this is a watershed moment. We’re standing in the backyard of our pool…’cause that’s where you stand in Scottsdale in August…it was hot, and we had a margarita, and she said, “Let’s do the RV thing.”
Volunteering fills the soul
Shar said it was during that conversation that she realized she was happiest when she was visiting with folks at the hospice center or reading to third grade kids.
“That’s how I started to fill my soul,” she said. “To sustain happiness, I needed to do something more positive. I was on three police boards, I was volunteering for a hospice center, I was volunteering for an elementary school. I was doing something at least once a week and I said my happiest moment is when I’m reading to those third grade kids. So, let’s travel. Let’s go and see this beautiful country but let’s do it with a little more purpose. We thought, let’s take a year to volunteer…and so we called it, A Year to Volunteer. It sounded like a brilliant idea.”
The transition to RVing
At the time, Shar said she foolishly thought they could do 50 states in 52 weeks. “I was stupid. No time in between…rushing, hustling, and that’s not what the purpose was,” she said. “So, we sat on this plan,” Phil said. “She tendered her resignation, but it was going to take at least a year to replace her. Her book was large.” Shar had been in the business for five years and the book of clients she had created was carved in half and given to two agents.
“It was going to take at least a year. That was fine because we hadn’t even gotten an RV yet,” Phil said. “So, we set the path in motion to do this thing and then…fast forward, we’re going through the motions. I retire and I’m doing my side hustle still and we start looking for an RV in 2018. We found one in February of 2019…a 2007 Gulf Stream Class A coach. It wasn’t too expensive. We started camping and taking baby steps.”
Toward the end of 2019, Phil was looking at getting solar panels because they wanted to be able to go off-grid. He had invited someone over to give him a quote and that man brought a friend with him. The friend had a large following on Facebook. It was Tony, of Hippy and the Tech, and he was enthusiastic about A Year to Volunteer, but came up with the idea of organizing a larger project and asking for volunteers.
“So, he kind of came up with that idea and we talked about it. Sure enough there was a rally coming up in February in Live Oak, Florida,” Phil said. “A buddy of mine reached out and said there was a state park hit particularly hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018 – Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna. They lost 90 percent of their tree cover. Their entire campground was decimated. They had not been open, so we reached out to them and they said `bring whoever you want.’”
They started advertising their first project at that rally in Florida in January of 2020. They had 39 volunteers at that first project. “From that moment forward, we knew it was not just going to be us,” Shar said.
The volunteer projects begin
In the first project, they only had a few full-time RV families. Since then, most of the volunteers have been in the 55-65 year age range. To date they have done 19 projects in 14 states, utilized 23,300 man hours, and saved parks and nonprofits millions of dollars for the work they have done.
“We started in February 2020, and in March, suddenly COVID blew up. We thought, ‘man what are we going to do?’ We found that state parks were kind of an outlet for people. A lot of state parks were trying to stay open to try and give people a place to go but still be outside and safe. We were in Alabama for three months,” Shar said.
They were willing to help with a state park that had been closed for five years. The Governor of Alabama allocated money to Buck’s Pocket State Park in the northeast part of the state for contractors to come in and redo some parking pads and pedestals. They spent six weeks there with 29 volunteers and renovated the entire state park.
“What we are trying to encourage people to do is to inspire others to take a year of their life and give it to volunteering,” Shar explained.
“Not all at once because it’s unreasonable for most people to take a year off work. If people gave one day a month, between ages 30 and 60, they would have given a year of their life to volunteering and giving back. I think the world would be such a better place if everyone did help others, to step outside of themselves and do something for everybody else for once instead of just looking at what they can get out of something. That’s what we are trying to do.”
Their revised goal is now 50 states and 365 volunteer days, whichever comes last. They are now at 235 days but only 14 states. “We’ve done 11 state parks, one city park, and three nonprofits. It’s something that gives back to the community,” Shar said. “We did an equine therapy center which helps people with autism or PTSD. We did a raptor education group which is a bird rescue organization in Wisconsin.”
“Our second project was in Rockport, Texas,” Phil said. “It was with Hands of Hope, but they passed us off to a local church that had some damage to one of their educational buildings. There was a shortfall between insurance payout and the new building because they had to bring it up to code. They saved $83,000 on demolition. We demo’d this massive steel building – three stories. We went through with 11 volunteers. We pulled down walls, separated all the wood from the brick from the metal, so they could recover as much money as possible. That was a blast!”
Phil and Shar are currently on a short hiatus and will start projects again in February. They are booked out until the end of May.
How can someone get involved to volunteer?
“We will take anybody who has the heart to help. That’s what we want,” Shar said. “Everybody comes in with something. Some people like to paint, some people just like to rake and pick up leaves. We built a 2000 sq. ft. scenic overlook in Versailles State Park in Indiana. It was 110 feet long and we built it from the ground up. There was nothing there when we got there but again people come in with, ‘I’ve built my own deck,’ so we just put our minds together and everyone knows what they are good at and find their place and just build.”
The couple recently began advertising for specific experience and skills for an upcoming project. “A state park in Louisiana, Sam Houston Jones in Lake Charles, got hit by Hurricane Laura. We had some 400 feet of boardwalk that needed to be replaced, and a pavilion. So, we really needed some skills. So, what we did was, for the first time ever we asked specifically for framing and construction skills,” Phil said.
As soon as they had people with those skills, they opened it back up for anyone who wanted to come and volunteer. All projects are set for two weeks in length with the potential for more time if needed. They lock their volunteer crew in at 15 rigs per project.
The couple never asks for parking when they volunteer at an RV park. They often boondock nearby. “Sometimes we get locals – people that have driven in for the day,” Shar said. “On one of our last projects in Oklahoma, there was a guy that lives in the city. He loves this city park. It’s right on a lake. He came out and helped us 7 out of 10 days. We love it when local people get involved. You really need them to keep it going.
“We’re going to keep on going until we hit 50 states. It’s funny because you see so much negativity on the news and everything is just so bad all the time and so much hate and when you do these projects, the volunteers themselves feel good about what they are doing. They know they are having an impact in a community, so it helps us kind of restore our faith in humanity.”
Amazing volunteer opportunities
During a recent project, the volunteers helped a team at a nonprofit have its faith in humanity restored. They were working with the Raptor Education Group Inc. (REGI), Antigo, Wisconsin, in August of 2021. The organization has 32 bald eagles on site as well as other birds.
Shar explained, “She did not order any supplies. She had been told multiple times by volunteer groups that they would come and help and no one showed up. Or they would show up and all they really wanted to do was handle the birds and take selfies. When we spoke with her, she said she would love to have us come. We scheduled the dates but she didn’t order any supplies.”
The manager had been cautiously optimistic that anyone would show up because of previous unfulfilled promises.
“When we got there she was so overwhelmed that so many people came. So, she ordered the supplies and the work we did there…we gave this place an entire makeover…painted, cleared, trimmed. We built a six compartment passerine enclosure that lets them soft release birds. When the birds are ready for release, they just open the door and the birds fly off.
“There were a number of tears that we, and they shared…because it gave them faith that there is still good in people, and that there is help,” Shar said.
How the volunteer work gets done
Phil and Shar are both project managers with Shar taking the lead on most projects. The two desire to make it easy on the client so the work and the volunteers aren’t disruptive to the organization.
“We send them a list of stuff we need. More than what we think we can get and somehow it’s just synergy. You put all these people together, like-minded with good purpose and they work hard and they work fast,” Shar said. The work schedule is not intense and usually begins with a short meeting at 9 a.m. Volunteers can take a break whenever they want.
“Take a break whenever,” Shar said. “When you’re tired, stop. When you’re hungry, eat. Go at your own pace, do whatever works for you, We usually cut out about 3-3:30. We don’t want to burn everybody out. We want it to be a good, positive experience.”
They recently had their oldest volunteer at 79, who Shar said ran circles around everyone. The youngest was 5 and she helped her family with cleanup. “They were homeschooling during the day and they would come out and grab a rake and the little ones would scoop up the leaves and put them in the back of a side-by-side. Mom was raking…dad was doing heavy duty construction. Everybody has a part. We find something for absolutely everybody,” Shar said.
Because of the success of A Year to Volunteer, the organization recently became an official non-profit, receiving its 501C3. “The reason we do all these organizations is they never have the time, money or staffing to be able to do a lot of the stuff that we can do,” Phil said. “A lot of state parks and a lot of municipalities, a lot of organizations don’t have a lot of money. When we were at the Raptor Rescue, they were grabbing debit cards they had received for donations and using them to buy materials.”
“We realized that it would be great if we could come in and self-fund. So, we became our own 501C3 and we’ve now opened up the opportunity to accept donations. We have a donate button on the website. Now, hopefully we can work on self-funding so we can come in and bring our own resources. That’s the best part of volunteering—the purest form.”
The organizations receiving the volunteer time provide the materials and tools and often offer the couple and volunteers free parking. “They feel the least they can do is offer us a place to park. Our goal is to be able to pay for our parking because that’s thousands of dollars,” Shar said. “At our last project that would have been $3,500 in parking fees. We did a month in Indiana where that big scenic overlook was built and that was $10,000. If we could have paid for it, that would have helped us so much more.”
A Year to Volunteer Core Values
The couple has set Core Values to define their basic goals. “Our core values are what makes us tick,” Phil said. Those include:
- Make a positive impact.
- To not negatively impact their revenue. “We save everything we can. We might be able to repurpose wood. Don’t just pour out your paint at the end of the day, wash everything – anything to save dollars,” Phil said. “If we can come in and self-fund and purchase at least the bulk of the materials, then that’s another way to not impact their revenue.”
- Make it easy on recipients. “This means we’re not going to have 39 volunteers peppering the staff with questions. It all comes to Shar. We have to crack the whip sometimes. Shar takes the lead as the project manager. We both run as project managers but if they come to me, I send them to Shar. That’s probably the hardest value we have because people want to schmooze with the park people but it’s not efficient,” Phil said.
- Get in and get out. According to Phil, “We don’t linger. We don’t like anyone to stay after a project unless they have a camp host job or they want to pay for their spot.”
- Have fun! “We all come in with three common interests already – we love to RV, we love to travel, and we love giving back. So, we rally everyone in a circle every day and try to have cocktails. Some people will come out and some won’t. When we leave that group our chat (whatsapp) stays. We have made more friends than we ever did living in a house. We routinely reconnect across thousands of miles with the same people.”
“We just finished our fourth project with them and love what they are doing for not only the RV community but also the organizations around the country that need our help!”
Stacy Farley – You, Me, & the RV
Creating new best friends
“People who have met up at a project are just RV besties now,” Shar added. “They travel and go their own way, but when we crisscross, we are connecting up. We have had so many people tell us that they have met their long lost brother from another mother because of this experience. Where else do you walk into a group of strangers and have three things in common right out of the gate? It’s impossible not to meet brand new best friends that you’re going to stay in touch with for the rest of your life. It’s really been a wonderful, positive, amazing journey.”
Upcoming volunteer projects
Shar and Phil’s future plans include a project in Van Cleave, Mississippi at Jackson County RV Park in February for repairs, construction, and to cut trails. In May, the couple is going to Minden, Nebraska at the Pioneer Village Museum. “In its heyday it was the largest business in Minden, Nebraska, with massive acres, outbuildings – 26 buildings I believe,” Phil said.
The museum has Americana beginning in the 1830s on display, as well as cars, planes, motorcycles, and much more. “It’s so impressive, but it fell into disrepair because before it became a nonprofit the family was relying on admissions and they just weren’t getting enough,” he said. “They have an old steam carousel that everybody in the community and everybody in the region has been on. It fell into disrepair and needs to be rebuilt. We looked for people with some framing and carpentry skills. So, we’ve got those, so we have a full group of folks coming there in May.”
Phil and Shar can be reached through their website where visitors can subscribe to their newsletter and get information on all upcoming projects. Projects are also announced on their YouTube channel where you can see project videos. Interested volunteers can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and express interest in volunteering. The couple is also on Facebook and Instagram.
“(Social media) is a good way to stay in touch with everyone,” Phil said. “We don’t have a huge following but a big enough one that we fill up our projects six months in advance. That’s why we love to get the word out to others. We’ve started doing simultaneous projects that we call Y2V2 where after two projects you become a repeater, but then become eligible for Y2V2…a smaller group of volunteers that go back to a place where we’ve already been to do other stuff.”
Seasoned volunteers can help facilitate those projects while Phil and Shar are running projects elsewhere. Parks or nonprofit organizations that would like to be considered for volunteer work can also email the couple at email@example.com.
“Jump in early because they always fill up fast,” Phil advised. “Even if you are not a hundred percent sure, sign up because we always have a backup list and we always draw from those. If you are even remotely interested, sign up now and if you have to cancel or back out…”
“…then you’ll make someone on the waiting list very, very happy,” Shar added. “We have to always hunt for the projects and we’re always reaching out to places. If places reached out to us, oh my God that would be so much better.” “The word is out with the state parks,” Phil added. “One park stated, if Y2V comes knocking, you better answer. We love that. It’s been easier, now that they’ve heard of us before.”
“The core of what we do is with RVers. It’s amazing we do have a lot of young retirees, people in their 50s. Just because they are on the road doesn’t mean they want to be idle. They want to have purpose. They want to have something good to do. They want to feel like they got up in the morning and did something of value. So, this still allows for you to be on the road, still see places, meet new people but also have a lot of value and purpose along the way,” Shar said.
Whether you are a nonprofit seeking project assistance or an RVer looking to do more than just play a little cornhole, contact them today. Phil and Shar will put the pieces together so that both sides can feel a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
A Year To Volunteer
Terri and her husband, Todd, are full time RVers and work campers. They have been living full time in their RV for nearly three years with their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Newton, and their Mini Aussie puppy Remi. They are currently wintering in Arizona with plans to continue their travels next summer. Writing is Terri’s passion but she also loves hiking, kayaking and anything she can do outside.