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Committed to Volunteering: Tom and Mary Nelesen
Montana Senior News, April/May 2014
When you first meet Tom and Mary Nelesen, you can’t help but notice two seemingly contradictory traits about this Kalispell couple. Both are gentle, soft-spoken people. Yet when they discuss volunteering you soon realize those qualities are tempered with a steel core of commitment to organizations needing assistance.

From helping the Flathead’s homeless and abused to improving the lives of women and girls here and overseas, Tom and Mary have championed the less fortunate. They have also devoted their energies to local environmental education, bringing books to the homebound, and working behind the scenes in Glacier National Park.

In fact, it was the idea of volunteering in Glacier that prompted these two Wisconsin natives to relocate to the Flathead in 2004 after they retired. During a 1990‘s vacation in Glacier they fell in love with the majesty of the Crown of the Continent while also discovering the park had four non-profit partners with whom they could serve.
“We decided to take our time; learn about each one; and choose which best fit our personalities,” says Tom, who with Mary eventually selected Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates (GNPVA) as their main, but not sole, volunteer venue in the park.

“It exists—not to garner donations—but to provide opportunities for those who want to serve, so it enjoys a unique partnership with the park,” explains Tom. “Many of the jobs we take on, like backcountry preservation projects, are things the park would like to see done but doesn’t have the physical or financial resources to accomplish. We augment their labor pool.”

Last year, GNPVA’s members worked some 6,000 hours. That translates to an in-kind labor donation worth over $140,000 to restore historic buildings and trails and fund internship stipends, among other projects. GNPVA’s contribution has been so significant, it earned them this year’s Jack Potter Glacier National Park Stewardship Award from Headwaters Montana.
“By design we stay under the radar, so to receive an award like this was incredible. For another organization of that stature to appreciate what we do to that extent was humbling,” says Tom, current president of the 145-member organization. “To my knowledge the associates have never been recognized like this over 25 years’ of service to Glacier Park.”

Aside from participating in GNPVA, the Nelesens support Glacier by assisting with citizen-science studies of loons, pikas, and mountain goats.     “I love getting out into the park, it’s so beautiful, and I love that these projects take me outside,” says Mary. “They provide an opportunity to contribute to the study of select species of concern because of climate change affecting their habitat.”

All summer, she and Tom also volunteer weekly fielding questions at Apgar Visitor Center.

“That lets me share what I’ve learned and enjoy about the park with visitors having no idea what to see or do when they get here,” states Mary, who hikes to Glacier’s fire lookouts and mountain passes whenever possible.
Of all the questions asked during their seven years’ behind the information desk, the oddest one deals with the rocks residing on the bottom of Lake MacDonald.

“Two men in their 20‘s said to me, ‘We know the green rocks are jade. What are the red rocks?’ I just smiled inside,” remembers Tom. “Then I gave them a ten-minute geology lesson about the role of oxidation in rock formation. I think they appreciated the explanation.”

Although actively involved with summertime park volunteering, Mary also shares her enthusiastic spirit year-round with another project close to her heart—the Homebound Program. Based on a successful book-loaning arrangement she participated in while living Wisconsin, Mary proposed that the Flathead Public Library establish something similar so that patrons lacking transportation could still borrow books, CD’s, and DVD’s. Not surprisingly, during its trial period the Homebound Program quickly proved its worth.

“It’s a volunteer service provided by the Friends of the Library for people who can’t come in person because of illness or not having means to get there,” explains Mary, the Homebound coordinator for Kalispell. “It’s a rewarding program. You know you are providing a service that is greatly appreciated.”

After receiving 20 minutes of training, volunteers are matched with library patrons in their vicinity, who note which authors, book genres, or films they prefer. The volunteer then makes the selections, checks them out with the patron’s library card, delivers the material, and returns later for pick-ups. Incidentally, if anyone from Bigfork, Kila, or Marion would like to assist, volunteers are needed for those areas.

In considering why she dedicates so much of her life to volunteering, Mary says, “like everyone I have made mistakes that I can’t undo and I struggle with regrets. Volunteering helps me to know I can touch people in a positive way even if I didn’t do it in the past. I feel really good when I know that I made someone happy that day. You can make a difference in somebody’s world and it’s not costly.”

For information about the Homebound program, visit or call 758-5818. To learn more about volunteering in Glacier Park, visit