Railroad museum seeks volunteers

The California State Railroad Museum and Historic Park is calling all volunteers to enter its 50th volunteer academy – volunteers who, according to officials, are the museum’s backbone.

“We couldn’t run the museum without our docents. They are everything,” said Theresa Gonsolis, a guide and volunteer coordinator.

She added that the museum – founded in 1981 – is considered the premiere indoor railroad museum in the country.

Applications for the volunteer docent class are online and are being accepted through May 31, though Gonsolis said there is some “wiggle room” in the deadline.

“Our philosophy is: the more the merrier,” she said.

Docents are only required to work seven hours per month, which can be split up between two days or done in one day, she said, adding that many docents prefer to work more often – some several days per week.

Chip Fong became a volunteer docent nine years ago shortly after retiring from the California Highway Patrol.

“I like to tell people about the history,” he said. “Sacramento is ground zero for California history.”

Fong said working in the dining car in the museum is his favorite because it’s one of the best examples of an original dining car from an era when rail travel was far more common.

He has also worked on the active Sacramento Southern Railroad operated by the museum and other positions.

“It’s a great social life if you like to talk about the history of the railroad and what it did for America – it was the glue that held us together,” Fong said.

To be a docent, previous knowledge of the railroad is not required, Gonsolis said.

The volunteer course, which starts June 25, runs for four weeks and includes three-hour classes Monday and Wednesday evenings as well as seven-and-a-half-hour classes Saturdays.

After graduation, docents can go to work in one of several areas – the museum, the car shop (where train cars are cleaned and maintained), the signals group (which operates train signals), the model train exhibits on the second floor and others.

“We recommend shadowing other experienced docents for a little bit first,” Gonsols said. “They can learn even more from their wealth of knowledge.”

That knowledge is shared with the approximately 500,000 people who pass through the attraction every year.

School groups are common visitors, and 10-year-old fifth grader Cecilia Estrada of Berkeley said Wednesday that the docents were very helpful.

“I enjoyed the trains,” she said. “(The docents) told us really interesting stories about them.”

Cecilia said she thought the refrigeration car was interesting.

Gonsolis added that refrigeration cars allowed California produce to be transported all over the nation, making it the state’s “true gold” as part of the economy.

For more information about applying and an online application, click here.

“This is really a museum where the interaction we have with the public who come and visit is important,” Gosolis said. “(The volunteer docents) are what make our visitors so in awe of this museum.”

Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell. 

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May 19, 2011 | 1:17 PM

This is a great opportunity for retired members of our community. Is there any other opportunities available for volunteer work?

May 19, 2011 | 1:22 PM

There are numerous opportunities for volunteer work in various areas of the city, be it helping with the homeless, volunteering at museums or numerous other venues. Is there a specific area you are interested in? If so, I can point you toward some opportunities.

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