Volunteers’ passion, devotion enrich community

Jan. 18, 2014 @ 11:26 PM

Every day, across Durham and the region, legions of unpaid, passionate and caring people help make their community a better place.

Much has been written in recent years about the decline of community spirit. We see it in erosion of interest in civic clubs, in the challenges of recruiting volunteer firefighters in semi-urban areas, in dwindling congregations in some faith communities.

An easily recognizable and often caricatured reality of modern life is to see teenagers or young adults busily texting one another – from a few feet apart. Most of us have been in meetings, sometimes many meetings, where at least one member, at any given moment, is glued to his or her tablet or smart phone even as business is discussed around them. (Yes, I’m guilty.)

A few years ago, Richard Putnam coined a catchphrase for the phenomenon of decreasing civic engagement with his book “Bowling Alone.”

But the bright side of this picture is not that people are losing interesting in being engaged – they are choosing to be engaged in different ways. What is clear is that many of our friends and neighbors are deeply committed to lending a hand to their community for no more compensation than a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of making a difference.

I’m reminded of that when, as I’ve done in many recent years, as a judge I scan the nominations for the Volunteer Center’s Key Volunteer awards. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the center.) Looking over the forms is a humbling experience.

The thickness of the binder filled with the nominations is a testimony to the number of committed volunteers. And these aren’t casual volunteers who may drop in from time to time to help an organization.

Every year, I find it stunning the amount of time some people will give freely. The scoring system judges are asked to use awards one point for giving nine hours or less a month, three points for 10-15 hours and five points for 16 hours or more.

Many blow well past that top figure. Nearly half of the nominees in the individual category give more than that – far more. And in the senior category, lest you worry that seniors may be cutting back on their activities, 13 of 22 notched the top level.

And they are resilient. One nominee – who has logged more than 1,000 hours at her organization – underwent surgery after a fall but was back on the job in three months.

The forms tell of individuals who are, as one nominator said, “a shining example of how to resolve problems instead of standing by and complaining about them.”

The forms tell of real impact, like the nominee whose personal time and efforts at rallying others to work on a project “turned a 20-year-old vision into a dynamic, thriving ... reality.”

At the other end of the age spectrum, youth volunteers found time, despite school work and extracurricular activities, to contribute. Of one young person, the nominators said “once she was introduced to the problem … she became passionately involved in the effort” and “devised ways to expand the effort and involved her classmates…”

Agency officials speak of the key role volunteers play in helping often under-staffed non-profit organizations operate. And volunteers often make sacrifices themselves so paid staff can enjoy a holiday. One, for example, offered to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas so that staff would have a break.

Reading those stories and countless others is a reassurance that we are surrounded by people who care deeply about their community.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com