Richard Wachenheim's love of the outdoors was fostered early in his life by a great uncle who took him under his wing, and those lessons — and memories — have stuck with him into adulthood.
For 28 years, Wachenheim has incorporated his love of the outdoors into his volunteer work with the Forest Preserve, and for his efforts he was named the 2019 Volunteer of the Year at the District's annual volunteer banquet.
"My inspiration for observing, working, breathing in, having fun and (having) a real religious experience with nature came from my mother's uncle," Wachenheim said, adding his Great Uncle Clarence would take him mushroom hunting in the spring in downstate Brown County. "We walked, hiked, talked, observed the spring flowers and stood silent at times listening to spring."
Those childhood memories run deep, and provide inspiration for Wachenheim to this day.
"These days, when I get out in some of Will County's preserves in the spring, I think back to those days when I got my taste for all things natural," he said, adding that though he can't run like he did as a kid, he's still able to "relish the sounds, smells and sight of nature waking up."
His volunteer work with the Forest Preserve is extensive, easily totaling well more than 100 hours a year for many, many years now, said Renee Gauchat, volunteer supervisor for the Forest Preserve. He handles a lot of administrative tasks to both assist the District's volunteers as well as organize volunteer workdays. This includes spending time contacting and checking in with volunteers and also collecting hours from them and making sure they are recorded. He also manages many of the Forest Preserve's youth volunteer projects, including those undertaken by Eagle Scouts and Scouting groups.
In addition, Wachenheim serves as part of the volunteer coordinator team, through which he does a lot of marketing and recruitment and also updates and posts events to an online group for volunteers. Beyond the hours devoted to his tasks, he is also an exemplary volunteer.
"He is a great leader," Gauchat said.
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She explained the volunteer of the year is chosen by a committee that evaluates nominees based on several criteria, not just the number of hours worked. The committee looks at the return on the investment the volunteers have made to the District as well as how they distinguish themselves, she said.
Wachenheim stands more than 6 feet tall and can loom large, Gauchat said. For those who don't know him, he can be an intimidating presence, she explained. However, once you get to know him, there's nothing intimidating about him, she continued.
"His approach has just been so nice and engaging over the years," she said. "He can talk to anyone about anything at any time."
For his part, Wachenheim remains committed to his volunteer work.
"(I'm) looking forward to another season of working to bring native nature of our area back to what it was before settlement times," he said.
Other awards presented at the volunteer banquet, along with their recipients, were: Special Acts, awarded to Rob Wilson; Group Project of the Year, awarded to Nate Lunde; Outstanding Family, awarded to Dave and Marie Wendt; Outstanding Youth, awarded to Ian Afseth and Jessica Prince; Outstanding Senior, awarded to Jo Chenell; and Rookie of the Year, awarded to Kathy Hearne and Meg Tornatore.
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