If you take a look at many of the feasts and festivals that you’ve seen around our region for countless years, you’ll typically see one common denominator: they are dying. It’s the same in small towns, which struggle to get people to run for any type of political office or volunteer for a town board.
Apathy, as they say, runs rampant, as does laziness.
People, especially my generation, the 30-somethings to 50-somethings, are not taking the time to volunteer. In my town of Marion, the town has been forced to post classified ads in local newspapers to announce positions on volunteer boards that no one wants a part of. The town’s biggest party, The Marion Block Party, was cancelled in 2011 because the people who had run it for so many years just couldn’t do it anymore, and there was no one there to pick up the slack.
At many of the area’s Portuguese festivals, the average age of volunteers is well past 70 and you can rarely catch a glimpse of any of the young people giving a hand. We’re talking everywhere….New Bedford, Fall River, Taunton and all the small towns in between.
I’ve talked to many people about why they do – or don’t – volunteer their time to help out local organizations and the answers are all generally the same: they are just too busy. I’m not a big fan of that excuse. We just think we are busy, but we find time to golf, shop, fish or whatever else we want.
In fact, the truth is we all tend to prioritize what we want to do over everything else. We are no busier than our parents or grandparents, many of whom worked in the mill for a dozen hours a day, went home to cook meals for their families before shoveling off to night school to learn English.
There’s a disconnect
There’s something lost that we have to find. Working a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving with my 10-year-old, I was taken aback by the abundance of people, actually too many volunteers, who helped out that Thanksgiving morning. Why then and not other times? They, like me, wanted to feel good about themselves by volunteering for the needy before going home to a fat turkey.
But the problem with most volunteering is that there are no apparent rewards like that; just a feeling that you are helping an organization that needs it. That may not be enough for people.
“Young people just seem to not want to get involved. There’s a disconnect there; a lost faith in the public and in government. There are kids that volunteer through the high school because they have to, but when it comes to the big things like the festivals, [volunteering] is just lacking,” said John Lobo, Neighborhood Liaison for the city of New Bedford. “A lot of the people who do volunteer do so because they’ve had a good life and want to give back but this is missing in the younger people.”
Some businesses, seeing the need for volunteers, have started pushing their employees to volunteer in order to help the community around them and show each employee the value of volunteering. One such business is Citizens-Union Bank and its President and CEO Nicholas Christ. Feeling so strongly about the issue to write a spirited op-ed piece in the Herald News earlier in the year, Christ, who encourages all his employees to give back to the community in their own ways each year, called out to residents and businesses alike to get involved.
Citing the turbulent economic times, Christ said it may be easy for some to put aside the needs of others within the community in order to satisfy their own, but that volunteering your time helps to strengthen the roots of what makes up a great community.
“Author Elizabeth Andrew once said, ‘Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.’ It is the responsibility of those in positions of leadership to encourage, support and recognize volunteerism. Those individuals who have compassion and display it through their service to others are truly the heroes of our community,” said Christ. “We have always made it a goal to energize the spirit of service among our employees here, as well as other business leaders with the hope that it will resonate throughout the City’s workforce.”
Strengthening the roots
Christ noted the region is stronger when all businesses encourage their employees to participate in some form of volunteerism, whether that takes the shape of community service or some other private venture.
Christ isn’t alone. Dozens of other businesses like Mechanics Cooperative Bank, BankFive, Allied Waste and many other companies go out of their way to encourage volunteering among their ranks. Sadly, much more is needed.
“Rewards are not always calculated in dollars and cents; the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from helping someone else is an unparalleled reward, and it will do wonders in further developing the character of this great city,” said Christ, who volunteers on nearly a dozen boards and committees in the greater Fall River area. “Fall River is fortunate to have many capable and caring individuals running volunteer organizations that it is easy to find one to help.”
The same holds true for Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter, who announced a Volunteer Initiative four years ago for prosecutors and office managers and other staff, who have since volunteered 11,000 hours of service to the community.
“I say to every person, during their job interview, that one of the prerequisites for being hired is to agree to volunteer in the Bristol County community, on their own time, between 12 and 26 hours per year. 12 hours for the district court prosecutors and 26 hours for everyone else,” said Sutter. “I make volunteerism a job prerequisite because I want to hire individuals who want to make a contribution to their community, in addition to the work they are doing for the district attorney’s office. I am a fervent believer in volunteerism. I believe it is very good for the person doing it, very good for the individual or organization receiving it and very good for the community at large.”
When asked his thoughts about the struggles facing organizations looking desperately for volunteers, Sutter said when he was young, the clarion call of the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was crystal clear.
“‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ For me and many of my generation, his and his brother’s leadership was inspirational. Maybe that is what is missing,” said Sutter.
Lobo agreed, saying youth could be inspired if adults just took the time to listen to them, something that doesn’t always happen.
“Youth want to express their opinions and ideas without worrying about being criticized, but adults don’t always take the time to listen, telling them that their ideas won’t work, that they’ve already tried this or that and it didn’t work, but youth need to find their own way, and we need to take the time to listen,” said Lobo.
“Youth have things to say, and if they know they are being heard, they will get more involved. They are our future.”
For those interested in volunteering, a call to any local organization like a Child and Family Services, United Way or local town hall, people will be happy to point you in the right direction. There are many to benefit from your efforts, starting first with yourself.