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Short-term volunteers keep coming back to Medora

Dick and Dee Grosz, a couple from Sioux Falls, S.D., have been volunteering in Medora, N.D., for 10 consecutive years. Dee works at the Chuckwagon Western Buffet and Dick on a maintenance crew. They are shown on Friday, Aug. 29, 2015 outside of the Chuckwagon and in front of the Roughriders Hotel. (Abby Kessler/ The Dickinson Press)

MEDORA—It was 10 years ago when Dick and Dee Grosz, longtime Dickinson residents who have since moved to South Dakota, began volunteering in Medora.

Every year they return, Dee says it's like a "homecoming."

During their first summer as volunteers, Dick said he met four others who quickly clicked with one another and they jokingly nicknamed themselves "the fabulous five."

The five became close and would keep in contact, even during the offseason. When it was time to apply for an upcoming summer volunteer position, the group would discuss a date, mark it on the calendar and arrive back in Medora on the same week.

"We became really close," Dick said. "It's one of the reasons we kept coming back."

Eventually, they were all on the same crew, working around seven-hour days together, making repairs and improvements around town.

"Now when I look around town, I can point to things and say we did that together," he said. "And we had fun even though it was work."

The group has since become smaller due to deaths and health complications, but the Groszs, who make their home in Sioux Falls, S.D., still come back every year—the place a trigger of fond memories.

But even first-time volunteers, Joan and Lynn Kapaun of Minn., said they too feel a strong connection to the people and to the place despite its newness.

"The neatest thing is they are so accepting of the people who are here for the first year," Joan said. "My goodness, I feel like I know them already. That's what makes it so special."

"I really think that there is a quality to the volunteers that does equate to that, we do just sort of become friends," Dee said in response. "Through Medora, it's through Medora."

The four volunteers are part of a group of 600 people—many of them senior citizens—who travel from all over the country to volunteer for 10- or 14-day periods during Medora's peak and shoulder seasons.

Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation Marketing Director Justin Fisk said volunteers work in many areas including food service, at Bully Pulpit Golf Course, on a maintenance crew, at ice cream parlors, in retail establishments and at the Medora Musical, among other venues.

During peak season, 24 volunteers come at a time to help out, but the foundation brings on additional 80 to 90 people during the fall due to a declining number of hired summer staff who return to their respective universities.

Volunteer coordinator Denis Montplaisir said nearly half of the summer staff have left Medora already and the foundation fills those positions with volunteers from around the country.

"These volunteers are absolutely essential this time of year," he said.

He said the volunteer program began in 1998, and has grown since.

When he began working for the foundation in 2008, he said there were around 420 volunteers. This year, there are about 600, the largest group ever.

Montplaisir said the foundation largely advertises through word-of-mouth and, through the method, receives more applications than available positions.

"There is just something about this place," he said. "There is a sense of teamwork and knowledge that they are contributing to a successful year."

That's one of the reasons he suspects most volunteers return for multiple and consecutive years.

Joan said she knew within the first few days of arriving in Medora that she and her husband would return next summer.

"We were going up the escalator at the Musical and Lynn was standing behind me and said, 'When we come back next year,' and then he said, 'Did you hear what I said?'"

Joan said she replied with a simple "Yes" because she had already had the idea herself.