Vacation Donation a Game-Changer for DNR Award Winner with Terminal Diagnosis

Marvin Timmons is a self-declared union man, through and through. He’s also a veteran; a “mechanical guy;” a loving husband, grandfather and brother; a lover of animals and nature; and, in his own words, a “forever optimist.”

And to his coworkers and supervisors at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, where Marvin has spent the past 15 summers working in building maintenance, grounds keeping and security at Upper Sioux State Park near Granite Falls, Marvin is much more than a colleague. He’s an inspiration.

So when Marvin, a longtime activist of Local 694, was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in the spring of 2018, his DNR family sprung to action. “My supervisor told me about this vacation donation thing – she got the ball rolling and got me the paperwork,” Marvin recalls of when he first learned of the program, which lets state employees share vacation hours to eligible coworkers facing hardship.

He was amazed that such a benefit could exist. “I was overwhelmed when I learned about it, and curious as to where such a great program got started” Marvin says. When he first learned of the benefit, Marvin admits he felt a little guilty accepting time from his coworkers, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to return to work.

“I know where I’m headed. I didn’t want to take hours from anyone else,” he explains. “I could see how it could really help someone who’s going through something but sees recovery on the other side, to keep them going. For me, I wasn’t coming back. I couldn’t put back in,” he says.

Those worries dissipated when AFSCME members from across the state joined together and donated more than 900 hours of vacation – enough to carry him through his 15th season at the park and secure the pension he’s been working toward for the past decade and a half.

Peter Benner, lifelong AFSCME activist and former Executive Director of AFSCME Council 6, helped to negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement that included vacation donation for state employees in 1996. “This is something we had proposed for a number of years - but could not get in bargaining because state law limited how vacation could be used.  In the 1996 session, we helped get a law passed which permitted donations of vacation time to sick leave accounts.  At that point it was limited to 12 hours per donator - now is up to 40 hours per donator.  This then got included in the 1997-1999 contract.  Ever since, we have been able to get increases in the amount of time that can be donated - once in 2009 and again in 2014,” Benner explains.

Marvin Timmons, a “lifelong union man,” says he’s always been thankful for what unions have accomplished for working people – but he’s blown away by the generosity of his AFSCME family and the huge impact this particular program has had on his life and the lives of his coworkers.

“The working man knows,” he says. “We have the rights we have today because of unions. It’s the camaraderie, knowing someone’s got your back, making sure nobody takes advantage of you. But I was overwhelmed in learning about the vacation donation program.”

The real gift of the benefit, Marvin says, is the quality time he’s able to spend with his family. The peace of having those loose ends tied up has allowed him to focus on what’s really important: his loved ones. He’s filled his life (and his heart) to the brim by actively bringing people into his family. Following his first marriage, Marvin says, he wasn’t looking for a relationship. But then he met Sonya, and everything changed. “The first time she walked into the room, I saw her whole aura,” Marvin remembers. “I actually saw a glow around her. I just knew right then.”

And with that meeting came a new family. The pair, married since 2003, now live just down the road from Sonya’s daughter Danielle and her three children – a comforting, energizing presence for Marvin as he continues cancer treatment and faces the reality of his diagnosis.

Thanks to, the family has connected with relatives they never even knew about. Marvin has met several siblings from across the country – even a long-lost sister who lives nearby in Duluth. Those relationships, he says, are what helps him stay positive.

A few months following his diagnosis, Marvin’s DNR family stepped up again to show their appreciation for his dedication to conserving our state’s natural beauty and serving park visitors. He was presented with the 2019 DNR Commissioner’s Award for seasonal employees in recognition of his years of service. DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen was in attendance to present the award; along with a healthy crowd of friends Marvin has made during his years of service as what she termed “the face of the park” during the award ceremony.

Commissioner Strommen also took the opportunity to thank Marvin for his service in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War, presenting him with a commemorative medallion featuring the seal of the State of Minnesota on one side, and a yellow ribbon – a symbol of support for veterans - on the opposite.

AFSCME Local 694 DNR Worker Marvin Timmons shows off the plaque and medallion presented to him by DNR Commissioner Strommen

Timmons poses in his home with the plaque and medallion awarded to him by DNR Commissioner Strommen

For Marvin, the highlight of the ceremony wasn’t the plaque or the medallion. It was the people. Dozens of former coworkers and supervisors attended, including faces Marvin hadn’t seen in years. “I felt really honored. I saw folks there – past managers, coworkers, campground hosts – people you’d seen year after year. Come to find out,” he quips, “I guess they kind of like me!”

At the gathering, Marvin and his DNR family reminisced on some of their fondest memories of working together at the parks. For Marvin, those moments included taking kids on nature hikes, teaching Boy Scouts to put up tipis, and even, a few times, getting to participate as a character in historical reenactments and theatrical productions at the park.

Marvin recalls that one of his favorite moments on the job was when he got to be in a “place-based” Minnesota River Tour production. “I played a mechanic on a riverboat. Part of it was work, part of it was fun. I got quite involved in the production side of it, plus played a character,” he says. “You know – you do what needs to be done and you help out. Stuff like that helps build community, and you get the opportunity to put a good face forward for the park.”

Despite his terminal diagnosis, Marvin is settling into retirement with a positive outlook and expresses his gratitude at every opportunity. “I guess I just consider myself pretty lucky,” he says with a chuckle. “If I were able to go back in time and change any part of my life, I wouldn’t. I tried to follow the path laid out before me, and all was meant to teach and to learn. I’m very happy with the way my life turned out – and I am curious as to where it goes next.”

When it comes to life advice, Marvin keeps it short and sweet. “Be honest. Go with your gut. Work hard, but don’t forget to have fun.” And last but not least, work union! “It’s been a pleasure working with this union,” he adds. “I am grateful for what unions have done for the working man.”

Marvin’s last day at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park was October 16, 2019. While the generosity of his AFSCME family at the State of Minnesota carried him through his 15th season at the park, Marvin and his family are still facing financial pressure. His daughter Danielle has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to help cover the cost of household bills, medical travel expenses and prescription copays during their time of hardship. You can make a contribution at