Trail blazer: Almost 70, Columbia's David Ziobro carves a path through retirement with volunteer work

Ziobro and his regular hiking companion, Toes, enjoy a hike on trail near his Columbia home.
Ziobro and his regular hiking companion, Toes, enjoy a hike on trail near his Columbia home. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda)

As 69-year-old David Ziobro put it on a recent morning at his home off Hayshed Lane in Long Reach, "trees have a nasty habit of falling down."

Like humans, they face strong headwinds in their lives and grow old. At times, the roots they've grown in their local environments weaken.


When they come down on the three-mile stretch of the Tuscarora Trail in Pennsylvania that Ziobro oversees as a volunteer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, it is Ziobro who clears them away, spending hours sawing and lifting on a lonesome trail two hours from his home.

Ziobro also clears obstacles from the paths of many local residents in Howard County, through his volunteerism with Christ Episcopal Church's HANDS program, which offers rides to county residents who can't otherwise make it to their medical appointments.


On top of that, Ziobro sits on the board of directors for Ardmore Enterprises, a non-profit organization based in Mitchellville that seeks to empower and clear away obstacles for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, under the motto, "Deep roots, strong branches, real growth."

In more ways than one, Ziobro has become a volunteer extraordinaire since his retirement in 2004, friends and family say.

Rather than let his own roots in the community weaken as he gets older, Ziobro has instead charged full speed ahead, making connections by helping others make their way, whether out on the trail or in their everyday lives.

"From my perspective, he doesn't have to do these things," said Tim Ambrose, a friend of Ziobro's. "He chooses to give back in this extraordinary way."

"He's very committed," said Maggie Caldwell, Christ Episcopal Church's parish administrator who helps organize the HANDS program, to which Ziobro has dedicated hundreds of hours.

In fact, Ziobro is so committed, Caldwell said, that people who are put in touch with him after signing up for the program often stop calling the church for pick-ups, preferring instead to deal directly with Ziobro.

"He develops relationships," Caldwell said. "He drops the barriers, and just helps as he's able."

Finding the inspiration

Ziobro, at first, didn't seem to like the idea of an article being written about him, and demurred at the request.

But getting the word out about some of the organizations he works with didn't seem a bad idea, he said, reasoning others might be inspired to volunteer.

"There are all kinds of things that happen in our daily lives that we can help on," he said. "If you take the time, you can benefit someone else's life."

All you need to do is find your passion, he said — though it definitely takes finding a balance, too.


When Ziobro married his wife, Suzanne, in 1981, they had six children between them from previous marriages. They set up a new home for the whole gang in Columbia, which was often jammed with friends from the neighborhood, too.

Ziobro was a manager and then an executive with Computer Sciences Corp., from which he retired in 2004 as the company's vice president of NASA programs.

He now has 14 grandchildren and one great grandchild, with a second on the way. Life remains busy, family life remains a priority.

It always has been.

Ziobro grew up with a severely disabled brother who never walked or talked, but who taught Ziobro that "all life is precious, even (life) that doesn't seem that viable."

Ziobro's mother, who lived to 101, lived the last several years of her life with Ziobro in his home. But prior to her move from Pennsylvania to Columbia, she had for years been assisted with chores and other tasks by a kind neighbor who never asked for anything in return, Ziobro said.

That neighbor's example inspired him to start volunteering his own time, more than he was already giving to Ardmore, where he has sat on the board for 30 years, he said.

"I'm a believer that if we would all just be better neighbors, especially with the elderly ...," he said on a recent morning, before trailing off.

He started volunteering with HANDS, and found he liked getting to know people, liked helping them overcome the barriers in their lives. He started turning his longstanding but occasional hiking habit into a more focused endeavor, and eventually took on more permanent duties as a trail overseer in 2009.

For Ziobro, the end of his unfinished sentence is clearly that, if we were all better neighbors, the world would be a better place.

On the trail, an example

In his own pocket of the world, along those three miles of the Tuscarora Trail that he has been to dozens of times in the last few years, Ziobro said it's nice to see the impacts of his work, right before his eyes.

It took him 27 trips to the trail — it takes two hours to get there, and he usually spends at least four hours working — before he could say the trail was in "very good shape," he said.

Whenever he heads out, he takes loppers and saws along with him, because the area's climate can cover the trail with briars and greenery extremely quickly, especially in the summer, he said.

Occasionally he brings his wife or a friend, but most of the time it's just him and Toes, his mixed Irish wolfhound, whom he and his wife adopted after his closest hiking companion for years, another Irish wolfhound named Scrappy, passed away.

Ziobro's wife says he is always careful out on the trail, and she doesn't worry.

Having been on the trail with him recently, Ambrose, 62, said he doesn't worry, either.

"That's the amazing thing. He's 69 and I mean, he really sets the pace. I know he doesn't necessarily look like one of those guys who's out there, but he's really fit and is really very good about climbing some steep inclines," Ambrose said. "Coming down is obviously the harder part, but he's stable and strong, and that's really one of the things that impressed me. I felt comfortable going out."

Ziobro takes a more humble take on his staying in shape, just as he does on most of what he does.

He likes his work; it keeps him busy. Everyone should be so lucky, he said.

But Ambrose didn't shy away from praising his friend.

"I think he serves as a great example for people who have benefited from living in our community, because Columbia is an extraordinary place to live, and we have a lot of benefits because of that, and here's a guy who has given back," he said. "I think if we all took a little bit of time and looked around, there are probably opportunities for us all to give back our time and talents."

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