- Associated Press - Saturday, August 30, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - When they say they love kids, Jim and Judy Froehlich mean it.

The couple from Sunbury have nine children and 32 grandchildren, yet, after his retirement from the trucking business four years ago, they had more free time than they preferred.

“When your kids grow up and move away,” Mrs. Froehlich said, “you don’t have as much to do and don’t see as many people.”

So they bought a 27-foot trailer and volunteered to become campground hosts at nearby Delaware State Park.

Which explains how, on a recent Saturday morning, Mrs. Froehlich found herself near a campground shower house, surrounded by a pack of 12 rambunctious children. They played with the Froehlichs’ dog, Maddy, and told Mrs. Froehlich about their plans to attend the Ohio State Fair that day.

Nearby, Mr. Froehlich, 73, was cleaning up after a morning of selling coffee and doughnuts to campers - a weekly ritual much like the craft program that Mrs. Froehlich, 66, oversees on Saturday afternoons.

The couple are two of about 350 campground hosts at 60 Ohio park campgrounds who voluntarily do this (and much more) in exchange for a free camping spot.

Many hosts serve for months at a time, often for the entire peak camping season - generally from Memorial Day through late September. The Froehlichs usually move their camper to the park in May and leave in October.

“It’s a big commitment,” Mrs. Froehlich said. “You do have to love camping; that’s for sure.”

She camped often when her kids were young (both Jim and Judy were married previously).

Host duties vary a bit from park to park, but the heart of the job is customer service. Because they live at the campgrounds, hosts are an important resource for campers with issues or questions that arise when full-time park staff members aren’t available.

“We think of them as ambassadors,” said Heidi Hetzel-Evans, who oversees all volunteers for the Ohio State Parks division. “They are a liaison between visitors and staff.”

As such, hosts serve as jacks-of-all-trades. They clean up campsites between visitors - picking cigarette butts and beer cans out of fire rings. They fix flat bicycle tires, help set up tents or cast out snakes.

“I’m the snake man,” said Jerry Boyle, a host at Mount Gilead State Park in Morrow County. “When there’s a snake in a cabin, I come and get them out. I’d say it happens about once a week.”

Many hosts, Hetzel-Evans said, live near the campgrounds where they volunteer, camped there in the past and decided to join the program upon retirement. Most but not all are retired.

At Delaware, Butch and Justine Strohm of Plymouth, in Huron County, became hosts 12 years ago, and both still work full time - Justine, 55, in the Plymouth school district and Butch, 58, as a third-shift steelworker.

The Strohms camped at Delaware for years and developed a friendship with a host. When an opening for a host came up, they stepped up.

“We enjoy meeting people,” Mr. Strohm said. “You watch people’s kids grow up. There were triplet girls here; we got to know them over the years and were invited to their (high-school) graduation.

“The regular campers, they all know us.”

Indeed, when John Hankins and his family go to the Delaware grounds, they head for the loop where the Strohms are hosts.

Hankins, 64, of Marengo in Morrow County, said he and wife Retta, 63, camp at Delaware for a week every month in the summer. His grandsons ages 10 and 11 seek out the Strohms as soon as they arrive.

“You bond with them and actually build a relationship with them, almost like family,” Hankins said. “All the other camper hosts are nice, but we just got attached to Butch and Justine.”

Although they aren’t required to, many hosts also help the parks financially.

At Delaware, the proceeds from the coffee and doughnuts - $130 on the recent Saturday - and donations at the afternoon craft program go into a fund that has been used for park improvements.

Last year, the fund provided $3,000 to build a new shelter house. This year, $1,500 is being used to buy new swings for the playground.

“It really helps us supplement the state-park budgets,” said Kelly Overly, manager of Delaware and Alum Creek state parks. “There’s no way we could do what we do without them.”

Mostly, though, campground hosts are there to see and be seen, to provide a smiling face and a helping hand.

“It’s very rare to meet an introvert campground host,” Hetzel-Evans said. “Everyone is friendly, and, if you need something, they’ll do it before you ask them.

“They are a cut above your typical volunteer, and they are absolutely integral to the success of our campgrounds.”



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