#AmtrakStories: Vet Continues Service through Trails and Rails Program
We are continuously inspired by the stories of our customers and those that help make the journey aboard Amtrak extra special, and know that with over 500 destinations, the possibilities for new stories and great adventures are infinite. Read on for a little trainspiration brought to you from Julie Henning from Road Trips for Families featuring a dedicated Trails to Rails volunteer:
Wounded in combat, United States Army Staff Sergeant James Fitzgerald describes the aftermath of Afghanistan as the darkest time in his life. Like many solders sent stateside to recover in a military hospital, Fitzgerald’s emotional struggles centered on fate and survival.
Despite his injury, Fitzgerald says his time in the army exposed him to the world beyond his small hometown in Tennessee. “Travel is a formative experience that has changed my outlook on life. Seeing other parts of the world has permanently changed my view of the world and I want to help broaden this horizon for as many people as possible,” he explains.
Now retired from service, Fitzgerald lives in New York City and is a Platoon Leader with The Mission Continues, a non-profit helping to empower veterans readjusting to civilian life.
With locations around the country, The Mission Continues deploys its members into communities in an effort to solve problems like building urban gardens and mentoring at-risk children. At The Bronx location, Fitzgerald has found a way to share his love of travel with others as a volunteer with Trails & Rails, a partnership program between Amtrak and the National Park Service.
In its sixteenth year, Trails & Rails relies on the support of National Park Service volunteers willing to assist passengers interested in visiting national park monuments and locations located along seventeen different Amtrak routes across the United States.
Amtrak reports that 741 National Park Service volunteers connected with approximately half a million passengers last year and is expecting that number to increase as the park celebrates its Centennial anniversary throughout 2016.
Fitzgerald has been a volunteer with the Trails & Rails program since October 2015 and is currently training a new group of The Mission Continues veterans who will primarily serve on the Northeast Regional Train 153 running between New York’s Penn Station and Washington DC’s Union Station.
He says each volunteer brings something different to the program, but that volunteers should be naturally curious people with a passion to share information and experiences with others.
“Typically two or three volunteers are assigned to each route,” he explains. “We set up a display table in the dining car, which is centrally located and a place that everyone eventually passes through. Once the train is underway we make trips and up and down through all the cars and connect with the conductor to make train wide announcement letting passengers know we are available.”
Some National Park Service volunteers dress in period costumes and others bring noteworthy artifacts from park sites located along the particular Amtrak route. Fitzgerald has volunteered alongside retired travel agents and says he learns something new on each trip.
All Trails & Rails program volunteers are provided with iPads that are connected to the train’s WiFi network. “We use the iPads to access the National Park Service website and can search for information and events by the state and location. This way we can help answer questions for passengers and also make suggestions based on the park locations within the area,” he adds.
Fitzgerald says the most common passenger request is suggestions for family travel. “Kids and families are key to the success of the Trails & Rails program,” he notes. “My favorite part of each trip is seeing the excitement and curiosity in kids’ eyes. The National Park Service provides volunteers with a passport stamp and I’ve been asked to stamp park passports, coloring books, and sheets of paper. A stamp is a souvenir kids can bring back to the classroom and show their friends and that’s a really significant thing.”
In volunteering with Trails & Rails, Fitzerald says he is part of a brotherhood and camaraderie of people who appreciate America as much as he does. He hopes to volunteer on a cross-country route someday and adds, “I was given a second chance on life that I can’t waste. I love this program and want to travel from one end of the country to the other.”
We’ll be featuring experiences from real riders like you, so be sure to stop by and check them out for some trainspiration in planning your next great adventure. The next time you take Amtrak for work or play, tag it with #AmtrakStories or fill out this form to share stories from previous trips. Yours just might be featured. All Aboard!
About the author:Julie Henning is a travel writer and print journalist based out of Eugene, Oregon. She’s a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and runs the family-travel website, Road Trips for Families. With a passion to fully explore the Pacific Northwest, Julie spends her days dodging banana slugs and hunting for Bigfoot with her three kids and black Labrador retriever.