Volunteers for Life

Couple transform the community through service to others

Story and photos by Drew Myron

Roger and Dotty Nelson of Parkdale know the secret to happiness: Keep active and help others. Photo by Drew Myron

Dotty and Roger Nelson know the key to a long happy life: Stay busy, help others.

Dotty, 75, has Monday nights open now that choir practice is on hold. Roger, 78, has a bit of time between blueberry and ski season. Even with a bit of wiggle room, the couple’s calendar is packed from morning to night with an abundance of volunteer roles.

The retired couple keep a full schedule of unpaid labor: delivering food for Meals on Wheels, repairing and maintaining Mount Hood Town Hall, leading search-and-rescue missions for Hood River Crag Rats, maintaining paths on the Klickitat Trail, and visiting sick seniors for Volunteers in Action.

The Parkdale duo are such dedicated volunteers they don’t see their time and effort as out of the ordinary.

“We don’t do any more than a lot of people,” Roger says with a shrug.

“You just shrivel up and wither away if you’re home all the time,” Dotty adds.

From comforting the elderly to mountain rescues, this quiet but active couple make a difference on a daily basis. Friends and colleagues say the Nelsons fill numerous needs.

“I love Roger’s commitment to serving our community and his positive, inclusive approach to solving problems,” says Libby Calnon, general manager of Hood River Electric & Internet Co-op.

Roger has served on the co-op’s board of directors for 18 years, along with service on the state level with the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“He loves connecting people and helping them,” Libby says.

Married 52 years, Dotty and Roger have lived most of their lives in Parkdale. The two grew up in Summit, New Jersey, got married, and two weeks later headed west for the things they love: skiing, hiking, climbing, and outdoor life.

Once in Portland, Roger worked as a teacher at Oregon Episcopal School, and Dotty worked as a physical therapist for Oregon Health & Science University. Five years later, they moved to Hood River, where they lived two years before settling into a serene Parkdale property with a view of Mount Hood and room to grow flowers, vegetables, and a bounty of blueberries.

“We’re hippie wannabes,” Roger jokes. “We wanted to be in a rural setting and we wanted a sense of community—and we got it!”

Roger worked as a middle school science teacher for 30 years at Oregon Episcopal, Hood River Junior High, and Wy’east Middle School before retiring in 1998.

Roger and Dotty Nelson combine their volunteer efforts but also pursue individual interests. Dotty grows flowers, sings in a choir and plays drums in a marimba band.

“I was a really dedicated educator,” he says. “I retired at 55 and now I’m 78 and think, ‘What a gift!’”

The gift of time has been returned with service to the community. An outdoor enthusiast with a history of stepping up for Red Cross disaster relief projects, it was a natural fit for Roger to join Hood River Crag Rats, the nation’s oldest search and rescue organization. The volunteer group serves Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge. Roger has been a member since 1990.

For decades, Roger hit the trail for nearly every search. Now he coordinates communication that directs search crews.

The need for rescue is greater than ever, he says. In the past, the group was called to rescue two times a month. Now, it’s two times a week.

“We’ve lost our connection to nature, and people make very poor decisions,” Roger says. “Cellphones have emboldened people. But people are not as self-sufficient as they used to be.”

The need for a connection to nature is a theme that has run through his life. As a science teacher, he led outdoor learning experiences. As a father, he raised their daughters, Stephanie and Carey, to enjoy and appreciate the outdoors.

“When I was younger and raising my kids, Roger was a real mentor to me,” says Christopher Van Tilburg, a Crag Rats colleague who has known Roger for 23 years. “He really encouraged me to get my kids outside, going beyond normal activities and taking them on bigger adventures, just like he did with his daughters. Now I’m 55 and he’s a mentor to me in another way: He’s still active, still participating. This is so valuable because it brings wisdom and maintains the history of the club. That institutional history is so important.”

Roger and Dotty spend a lot of time together but have their individual pursuits, too. Dotty enjoys music and performs with the women’s a cappella group Harmony in the Gorge. She also plays with the marimba band Jamba.

For years, the Nelsons helped provide free weekly community meals. When gatherings were put on hold due to COVID-19, the couple volunteered to deliver meals to homes.

Roger runs a half-acre blueberry farm that produces 5,000 pounds of berries annually.

“It’s a hobby gone crazy,” Roger jokes. When he planted in the late 1970s, he was one of the first in the Hood River Valley. His gamble took time to bear fruit.

“Nobody wanted to buy blueberries until the antioxidant thing became popular,” he says.

A health focus—combined with the rise of agritourism and adopting a U-pick model—has created farm success.

When not in service to others, the Nelsons enjoy gardening and bicycling. They have cycled all over Europe and look forward to the pandemic’s end so they can hit the road again.

“We both have our separate interests, but then we come together too,” Dotty says.

Before the pandemic, the couple worked together to prepare and serve weekly community meals for seniors at Mount Hood Town Hall. When the gatherings were put on hold due to COVID-19, the Nelsons took on another urgent need: Meals on Wheels deliveries.

“I really love the people,” Dotty says. “They’re so special to me. It’s so rewarding, and we love doing it. I don’t know why more people don’t volunteer.”