By Diamari Torres
Special to UM News
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (April 30, 2015)—By day, Terry Helmers is a senior systems analyst for the University of Miami Information Technology (UMIT) department. But on weekends, he’s usually paddling or diving in Biscayne National Park, where his decades-long dedication to preserving and sharing South Florida’s unique ecosystems has earned him President Barack Obama’s President’s Volunteer Service Award.
As Obama told Helmers in the award letter, “Your volunteer service demonstrates the kind of commitment to your community that moves America a step closer to its great promise.”
Helmers, who has been a National Park Service (NPS) volunteer and diver since May 1987, has spent countless hours cleaning up national park shores and lands; replacing, maintaining, and installing buoys; removing invasive species—like the lionfish—from local waters; and photographing (and sometimes discovering) shipwrecks. Likened to South Florida’s own Lewis or Clark by The Miami Herald, he also leads canoe expeditions to remote wilderness areas where visitors can see the changing environment up close and learn more about protecting it.
Over the years, he has won various awards for his volunteer work, including the 1999 University of Miami Vice President’s Service Award, the 2006 NPS Regional Superintendent’s Volunteer of the Year Award, and the 2007 NPS George Hartzog Regional Volunteer Award.
As he humbly notes, “We stand ready to take on any park task that needs to be done.”
This year, his NPS colleagues nominated him for the nation’s premier volunteer award, which was established in 2003 to honor and thank citizens who dedicate their lives to service. Brian Carlstrom, the superintendent of Biscayne National Park, presented the White House award to Helmers at NPS’s annual volunteer picnic in April.
“It was a surprise to me,” said Helmers, who accepted the honor by telling a story “that reinforces why we work—paid or volunteer —for the park service.”
Among his most enjoyable tasks, he says, is working with NPS’s “enthusiastic, energetic, skilled, trained, and extremely intelligent” interns, many who are master’s or Ph.D. candidates from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Not surprisingly, he had a hand in establishing the intern program.
“Back when Biscayne National Park was younger, we discussed how to promote this relationship between a top marine school and a living laboratory in their backyard,” he said. “It took a number of years, but now it’s a very well-established program benefiting both UM and the park.”
To learn more about the National Park Service, visit: http://www.nps.gov/.