Meet Joe Polka

Two-year-old Logan stood at the front desk of the nature center, his hands jammed deep into his pockets. “Hi, Joe,” he said, fighting his shyness.

Joe looked over his spectacles. “Hi, Logan. How are you today?” he asked. Logan’s face beamed his response. He was thrilled that Joe remembered his name, just as he always does.

That’s how many conversations start with Joe Polka at Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center. He’s been a volunteer naturalist there since 1997. The remarkable thing is that Joe has donated more than 10,000 hours of time over the past nine years to the Department of Conservation. He’s the only volunteer naturalist in the state to ever achieve this milestone.

Never too busy for friends

What’s even more amazing about Joe’s incredible dedication is that for four of those years he held down a full-time job with the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals. He now works for them on a part-time basis as warehouse manager while continuing his volunteer hours at the nature center.

At a recent Friday Night Live special event, Joe was holding 8-month-old Cora Hartwig. She reached for the reading glasses in his pocket. “Watch out,” her father said, “She’ll break them.” “Oh, that’s okay,” Joe replied, “I have another pair in the car.” When it comes to kids, Joe’s a pushover. He’s befriended countless children during the Nature Center’s preschooler storytime, Rockin’ & Readin’ Nature Tales. The toddlers love to gather around Joe as he reads them stories of nature and wild adventures.

A volunteer for volunteers

As staff members have been promoted through the ranks and other volunteer naturalists have left the Nature Center program, Joe has remained a constant. He now helps train new volunteer naturalists. He adds whimsy and fun to the customer service training portion and has the class laughing at his do’s and don'ts at the front desk. Joe attends most sessions to assist the assistant manager or guest trainer by passing out materials, running the AV equipment, getting the refreshments ready on time and whatever else it takes to help run the class efficiently. Of course, prior to the class starting, Joe has already assembled all of the class workbooks.

Man of many talents

Over the years, Joe has become an icon at Burr Oak Woods. He has helped with every project, program and special event imaginable. He gladly leads guided hikes, assists with interpretive programs or cleans out the storage room.