Mike and Betty Gill have loads of fun while impacting lives at Dollywood

Mike and Betty Gill both grew up in Louisiana. Mike graduated from high school in 1974 in the very small town of Mount Hermon. Betty lived in the even smaller community of Plainview.

Because his father was a general contractor, Mike gravitated toward building houses. However, after just seven months, he told his dad that he wanted to work his head rather than his body. About that same time, a friend of Mike’s mentioned his insurance company was looking for a sales agent.

“At the age of 18, I started selling insurance and it was just amazing. The second year on the job, I was the No. 2 producer out of 365 agents,” Mike explained. “I was promoted to manager at 22 and moved over to the Farm Bureau company a few years later. I did that for 41 years, which allowed me to walk away in my 50s to do something different.”

Betty, on the other hand, grew up living on her family’s plantation, where they grew tung oil trees. After graduating from high school in 1971, she went to work at a locally-owned bank and remained there for 38 years before retiring as a senior vice president.

“There is a big difference between a job and a career,” said Mike. “So many people work in jobs they don’t like. But, if you’re in a career, you love going to work every day.”

Adventure after retirement

When Mike and Betty retired, they didn’t have anywhere near the $2 million in the bank recommended by financial experts in order to thrive in retirement. But, they did have a motorhome and a desire to travel. Workamping made it affordable by helping to fund their journey.

Workamping involves working at a variety of short-term jobs for employers around the country. Mike and Betty first worked at a short-term job in Indiana, then began conducting seminars at various RV shows on behalf of Workamper News.

In 2006, the couple spent their honeymoon at Dollywood amusement park in Pigeon Forge , Tenn. When an opportunity came up for them to work at Dollywood, they were delighted to return to the place where they started as a couple.

Mike and Betty work two different jobs. Monday and Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Mike and his son, Kyle, work at Clabough RV park picking up trash, grading campsites and assisting guests. That work covers the cost of the family’s RV site, which would normally cost them between $1,000 and $1,500 per month.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the couple works inside Dollywood itself, which pays them each about $17 per hour, which provides some spending money.

“Believe me, working as a camp host is not that hard. It’s basically running around in a golf cart and talking to people,” he added. “Because we were out of debt when we started, we have not had to draw down any of our retirement money even though we retired in our 50s.”

Betty knows people who were not able to leave the corporate world as financially secure as she and Mike were when they retired. Those folks still need to work 40 hours a week to make ends meet.

“There are so many opportunities here at Pigeon Forge and elsewhere that if you need to work 40 hours a week or just a couple of days, Workamping gives you the flexibility to travel and work jobs you can enjoy,” she explained.

“When we retired, we knew we didn’t want to just sit down and not do anything,” said Betty. “We have been very fortunate to be working two or three days a week at Dollywood several times during the past eight years. It has been very rewarding.”

“When we started working for Dollywood, we were given an employee manual on the first day of training,” Mike added. “The first page of that manual said, ‘God has you here for a purpose.’ Betty looked at me and said, ‘We’re not leaving until they tell us.'”

As Christians working in a Christian theme park, Mike and Betty felt right at home.

“It’s an amazing place. The culture was just what we were looking for,” Mike admitted.

“We can say things like ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘God bless you.’ It just creates a different atmosphere. We are told by our guests daily how unusual it is and how much they appreciate it,” said Betty.

The Gills suspect the culture is responsible for the longevity of staff members who remain at Dollywood for as long as 30 years, and that’s after retiring from a career that spanned decades as well.

“When you find satisfaction in what you’re doing, that means a lot,” said Betty.

The hardest jobs at Dollywood

When Mike and Betty first started at Dollywood, they were told by others to avoid working in the foods area because it was the hardest job at the theme park. So, they signed up for attractions instead to run the kiddie rides.

“We were told later there were absolutely no openings to run the kiddie rides, and were asked to work in foods,” said Mike. “We told them to plug us in because I really like to cook, especially outside. Dollywood taught me their recipes so I could cook, and we get to move around quite a bit while serving others.”

Betty found her niche by working as a cashier for several of the booths and by serving as a restaurant hostess. However, because she likes to interact with others, she thrives when catering special events at the park.

“A few weeks ago, we had 3,000 coal miners come in on a Saturday, and we got to serve them food and drinks. This past weekend, we had 300 people or so on the catering pavilion,” Betty explained. “It’s the diversity of people we get to meet on a weekly basis who are coming in with their companies that make it a special experience.”

Special smiles

“There is no doubt that God brought us here,” Mike added. “I have a 38-year-old special needs son who needs someone with him 24 hours a day. Dollywood is amazing for its ability to plug those special people into jobs at the park in a way that makes them feel special, too. It has given my son a purpose he didn’t have before we got here.”

Mike’s experiences with special needs children opened the door to a magical opportunity for a visiting family a few years ago. He was assigned to make s’mores at one of the booths in the park. S’mores are camping delicacies created by inserting a big roasted marshmallow on top of a chocolate square sandwiched by two graham crackers.

“It is the best job I’ve ever had because I get to interact with all the kids,” Mike explained. “Betty found me some butterfly stickers that I keep with me when I’m working. If I see a child crying, I’ll start talking with the kid and offer him or her a butterfly to care for, which often stops the tears. Soon, mom, dad and the child are happy again.

“A few years ago, a boy came in on a stroller, but he was expressionless. So I got down on my knees and started trying to engage him with some high-fives. But, the boy wouldn’t cooperate with me,” Mike explained.

“His mother tapped me on the shoulder, so I stood up to talk to her. She explained the boy never smiles, never talks and rarely displays any expression,” he added. “I asked what the child’s diagnosis was, but the mother said nobody knows and doctors were still searching.

“I asked if I could take her son for a moment, and mom agreed. So I took the boy out of his stroller and took him to the s’mores pit,” Mike explained. “We cooked up a few s’mores and I got to a point where he would fist bump me a few times.

“But, when I took off the straw hat I was wearing and put it on the boy’s head, he busted out the biggest smile you’d ever want to see,” he added. “All of a sudden momma started crying, which made me cry, too.”

Unknown to him, Mike’s boss was in the area taking pictures at the time, and captured images of the interaction. The photos were so effective at demonstrating Dollywood’s values and commitment to families, that Mike received for the park’s prestigious Blue Ribbon Grand Champion Award. A banquet was held in his honor and he received an autographed photograph from Dolly Parton herself thanking Mike for his service.

Mentoring others

“Mike has never met a stranger, which I love about him,” said Betty. “I can hear him before I can see him because he’s always laughing. It’s such a beautiful thing at this day and time.”

The couple found another way to impact lives at Dollywood by mentoring international students.

“We have young people from Thailand, New Zealand, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and all over the world coming here to work,” said Betty. “The park also hires a number of high school and college students, too. We have daily opportunities to mentor these young adults.”

The Gills have been so effective at their jobs, they have been offered management positions. But, the couple turned down the offer because Mike and Betty didn’t feel called in that direction. It was more important to them to come alongside individual workers and provide one-on-one attention at times.

“We have worked with quite a few young people from broken homes and a lot of foster children. We’ve been able to be the grandparents they never had,” said Mike.

“There was one young man who the park was about to fire and he was assigned to me. As I was mentoring him, I learned he had ADHD (attention-deficit, hyperactivity disorder) and did not like to take his medicine.

“My son suffers from attention deficit disorder, so I went back to the boss and suggested he give the young man small hands-on tasks to complete one at a time,” he explained. “It worked well and the young man still works there today.”

“More importantly, he was 15 years old, so we were helping him at an age when it could have lifelong impact on him,” Betty added. “With all these kids, we just plant the seed and get the beauty of watching it grow.”

Catholic Charities has a mentoring program for students who could not pass the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) test in junior high. Consequently, they could not advance to high school.

“Betty and I each had a different young person we got to work with. They ended up passing the LEAP test in high school and attending college,” said Mike. “We still keep in touch with one young man who graduated and is now working full time for the U.S. Postal Service.

“But, in 8th grade, he could not read. Other teachers had passed him year after year, but he could not go to high school if he couldn’t read,” Mike explained. “I discovered the young man loved sports, so I got him a sports book. I told him when he finished that, I would give him another book. He read all the books and was able to improve his reading skills enough to pass the test.”

One book that made a tremendous difference in Mike’s life was “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie.

“We gave copies of that book to many of the kids we mentored,” he explained. “From the mentoring and our just trying to help, some of these young people are now in management jobs at Dollywood.”

“So many of them are just starving for attention and they don’t get it. They live in orphanages or are being raised by grandparents and even great grandparents,” said Betty. “When you just start talking to them, you can see their eyes and face light up. It’s like, ‘You’re interested in me?’ We all need to be doing more of that.”

More to life

Their Workamping schedules give Mike and Betty time to do things that bring excitement to their lives. For example, they bought electric bikes to tour the Smokey Mountains.

They loved living and working in Pigeon Forge so much, the couple recently purchased some property about 20 miles away. Mike is working to develop it into a place for them to park their RV when they aren’t Workamping.

“We still want to travel outside of Tennessee and plan to do that next year during the off-season at Dollywood,” said Mike. “We want to go west and see all the national parks in that area.”

“A few years ago, we had an opportunity to work at a large RV show at Hershey, Penn., so we spent a month on the road doing that,” Betty added. “Workamping lets you pick a destination you want to visit on vacation, then find job opportunities in that area to work for six months or so.”

For the Gills, Workamping has been a way to really immerse themselves into a region of the country to experience the people, culture, foods and things to do in that area. They get to see and experience so much more than people who just get a two-week vacation every year.

To get even more out of their travels, Mike and Betty used two apps. At the time, they were called GyPSy for road tours and Just Ahead for national parks. The apps were recently compiled and renamed to GuideAlong.

It is free to install, but users pay $4.99 to $15.99 to purchase specific tours. Some tours can be bundled together for a lower price. For example, the U.S. West tour encompasses 23 destinations and 4,335 audio points for $89.99.

GuideAlong uses GPS technology to provide a fun, informative experience tailored to a person’s current location. It provides commentary about the area and suggests things to do and see. For more information, visit www.guidealong.com.

“We were in Vermont and left at 8 a.m. in the morning. The app kicked on and played over the radio. This lady entertained us for 12 hours and told us where to get coffee, cheese and bread,” said Mike. “It talks about places that aren’t on the map or in a book. The app took us off the beaten path to some places to see that were just amazing.”

“It was like she was sitting in the backseat the entire day,” Betty added. “I remember her telling us there was a coffee shop just ahead and that she wanted cream and sugar in her latte.”

“I wish we had started earlier.”

If there was one regret about their current lifestyle, both Mike and Betty said they wish they had started earlier.

“In 2013, Betty had already retired and every day I came back home, she asked when I was going to retire,” said Mike. “I told her, ‘Look, nobody who makes the kind of money I earn just quits.’

“Then, in 2014, we lost an 18-day old grandson, Betty’s house burned to the ground, and two friends, age 48 and 57, died of heart attacks,” he explained. “I looked at Betty and said I’m coming home tomorrow. I’m not going to die doing what I’m doing right now knowing there is something else for us.

“I walked away not know what we were going to do, but I knew I wasn’t going back to the office,” Mike added. “It has been nine years. We see our grandchildren more today than when I was working in the corporate world because we visit them for a month at a time.”

“Many people ask us about our favorite places to visit, but we immediately tell them it’s not about the places, but the people God put in our lives that is important,” said Betty. “We have friends all over the United States. We can’t stop for fuel without Mike striking up a conversation with someone at the next pump.”

“I remember stopping at a 7-11 in Vermont to clean my windshield when a lady pulls up in a dually pickup truck. We start talking and I explained we were full-time RVers,” Mike said. “I felt bad because she almost started crying. Then I learned she and her husband had just bought a truck and fifth wheel RV.

“The woman said, ‘My husband and I prayed this morning that God would send someone to me today to let me know that what we were doing was not crazy,'” he added. “Then we both started crying and we’re best friends with those people today. We met them at 7-11 because my windshield wipers broke.”

“COVID taught the business world that so many jobs can be done virtually,” said Betty. “We are seeing so many young families who are Workamping today. They are working virtually and we meet them in the campground every day. They are homeschooling their kiddos.

“One mother said when their kids were studying about Gettysburg, they wanted to be in Gettysburg. When they were learning about the Grand Canyon, they wanted to be in the Grand Canyon,” Betty explained. “It was her hope and prayer that, throughout their 12 years of education, her kids would have seen all of America.”

Before living full-time in their motorhome, Mike and Betty had a magnificent house on a private 110-acre lake in Louisiana. It included a main home and guest house. But, they gave it all up to enjoy a life of adventure.

“When you get on the road and go over that first hill, everything is wide open in front of you,” said Betty. “You literally have a new adventure all the time. Mike and I are best friends today and, because we’ve got gypsy in our blood, every day is an adventure.”

To connect with Mike and Betty, email makingmemories53@gmail.com or look for MikeBetty Gill on Facebook.