In 2006, a year before they both retired from the Ohio public school system, Chuck and Joyce Fagan moved out of their Springfield home and into a 36-foot trailer parked at a local campground. It was a test.
"We thought that if we could make it through that winter in Ohio, we could work anywhere during retirement," recalls Joyce, now 66. "It was 25 below!" The couple, then in their late 50s, got through the big freeze, sold their house and a year later joined the nomadic tribe of boomers known as "work campers." Chuck, who’s 62, says, “We’ve never regretted our decision.”
The Fagans travel around the country in their RV, working at Kampgrounds of America, or KOA, locations a few months at a time, earning roughly the minimum wage at the comfortable, family campgrounds. “For us," Chuck says, "it's a great supplemental income that allows us to see as much of this beautiful country as we can."
Sharing Two Passions: Camping and Travel
The Fagans married in 2000, the second time for both, and shared a love of camping and travel. They hoped to incorporate both activities into their retirement. At the time, Chuck was the buildings and grounds supervisor for the Greenon school district and Joyce was a funding specialist for Xenia’s schools. They knew they'd need income to supplement their pensions during retirement.
When a friend told them about work camping, the Fagans were intrigued. "We researched the options online and really liked KOA the best," Joyce says. The 50-year-old franchise has roughly 500 campgrounds throughout the United States and Canada and hires about 3,200 “Work Kampers” annually.
They were initially accepted to the KOA in Bernalillo, N.M., outside Albuquerque, and have traveled from one campground to another ever since.
Rafting, Hiking and Working
Over the past six years, the Fagans have worked at nine KOAs, trekking from the Badlands of South Dakota to Moab, Utah, home of Arches National Park. They change assignments every three to six months, depending on the area's peak season and how long the particular KOA needs them.
“Normally we go from job to job, but if we have time to stop in Ohio on our way to our next job, we take a short break,” Chuck says.
They’re currently working at the Jackson Hole/Snake River KOA in Jackson, Wyo., a coveted spot that’s up against Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. On their days off, the Fagans have rafted on the Snake River and hiked trails where they've spotted black bears, wolf, elk, moose, sheep and a couple of grizzlies.
"I dreamed of going out West," Joyce says, "but I never thought I'd get to do it. It's a dream come true."
They work a 40-hour week, generally with Joyce in reservations and registration and Chuck in campground maintenance and repair. But they're adaptable. "I've done cleaning, cooking, whatever they ask me to do," Joyce says. Every two weeks they work the night shift.
After Labor Day, their hours will start to drop off. They'll leave the park just before it closes for the year on Oct. 5. Their next assignment, starting in mid-October, will bring them back to the Bernalillo KOA, which is open year-round.
The Fagans say one of their greatest pleasures from the KOA job is meeting new people, including park owners, guests and other work campers. "Everyone has a story to tell," Chuck says.
The KOA Work Kamper Program
KOA launched its Work Kamper program in 2005 precisely to attract retirees like the Fagans seeking to combine work and RV travel. "People in their 50s and 60s today want to be active and engaged, not sit in front of the TV for the rest of lives," says Jim Rogers, KOA’s president and chief executive. "They want to see the country and avoid eroding their 401(k)s." (Rogers and KOA were recently featured on the CBS show Undercover Boss.)
Most Work Kampers are married couples and many own trailer homes, so the job assignments fit neatly into their retirement plans. In some cases, the work campers are scouting out areas where they might settle eventually.
Compensation ranges from $7.50 to $12 an hour, depending on the type of job, location and how long the campers have been with KOA. The positions include hosting, managing the front desk, food services, store sales, events staff, housekeeping, maintenance, grounds work and other tasks that vary by location (some KOA sites have a marina, pool or zipline that needs an operator).
Most assignments include a salary, free laundry and discounts on propane and store purchases; they don’t include health insurance. Some KOAs require Kampers to pay rent and electric costs, along with food, fuel and maintenance. Work Kampers “don't get rich – they break even,” Rogers says. “But their lives are richer."
Chuck says, "Usually, the salary is adequate enough that we can sightsee, take care of our expenses and pay the additional taxes on the KOA income."
To reduce costs, the frugal Fagans use a South Dakota mailing service that sorts and sends their mail once a month, charging much less than UPS in Ohio. "Now, South Dakota is our permanent address, though we're hardly ever there," Chuck jokes.
Living in an RV
The Fagans have traded up to a 40-foot RV with ample room for them and their 12-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Matilda. Joyce cooks in the tiny kitchen almost every night. Still, they concede, living in a camper takes some adjusting. "If we buy something, something else has to go," Joyce says. "There's only so much space."
And getting from one KOA job to the next can bring some surprises. “Mechanical problems, bad weather, getting lost," Joyce says. "We've had as many as three flat tires on the way to another job. But it all adds to the adventure."
A harder adjustment is being away from their families. Chuck has five children, Joyce has one; they also have 10 grandchildren. "We're in touch every day on Skype or Facebook," Joyce says. "But we miss seeing them all the time." Some have visited the Fagans at KOA campgrounds, and at least once a year the couple returns to Springfield, where Chuck's mother is in hospice and Joyce's sister lives.
While the Fagans are delighted with their semi-retirement, they advise others to be certain they’d like work camping before giving it a go. "Make sure that this is the lifestyle you want," Chuck says. "You're giving up your house and leaving family behind. We've worked with a lot of people who've gone into it and haven't finished their first assignment."
But Joyce says she and Chuck hope to continue as Work Kampers "as long as our health is good and we can afford it." Adds her husband: "We love what we do.”