Build It and They Will Come
By Karla M. Steffens-Moran
The students sat in a circle and answered the question, one after another: “The government…the government…the government…. government…. the government is responsible for doing it…the government….” Only two of the seventeen students disagreed. Of those, the first suggested matter-of-factly: “I am responsible”; the other said: “I don’t know…my parents, I guess?” The question: “Who is responsible for fixing the mess we’re in--who is responsible for our economic recovery?” The consensus was clear: “We the people--at least in this particular college classroom--were feeling rather powerless to do much of anything.” So, I asked them: why do you assume you are powerless?” They answered: “We’re in school. We’re pretty busy with that”…. and so on and so forth.
It’s true. They are busy. They’re not alone. We are all busy. In fact, we’re downright overwhelmed! With everything that needs to be done in a day, in a week, in a month, most of us are fortunate to still be standing. In the dead of winter, during what is felt to be the longest month of the year (although in fact February is the shortest) we’ll find ourselves wondering: when will it end? The piles of snow; the piles of bills; the piles of paperwork to prepare to pay our taxes? Yes, we’re busy…and not just with our own lives..
The fact is, according to the Corp for National and Community Service (CNCS), Iowa is one of the “Top Ten States for Volunteerism”; it appears that here in Iowa, many feel that it’s not just the government’s responsibility. Still, the fact that all of the students in that classroom but one thought it was not their problem, assumed with a shrug that while the world is on the brink of financial dissolution, the vast majority are thinking: why don’t those guys we elected take care of it?
I mean, isn’t that why we elected them? Council members, mayors, representatives, senators, legislators at all levels--because we needed to trust that someone else would be handling "it"; we elected our officials to take care of business--the war, health care, education reform, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure! Involved? Do YOUR jobs, we say! WE HAVE LIVES!
Problem is, that is not the way it works. The students in that circle were wrong: it is not up to the government to do it. It’s up to us: we the people. And not just to talk the talk as some will do, but pick up the rake, the shovel, and the litter--pitch in--yes, volunteer.
Here are some facts about volunteerism according to our designation on CNCS for 2008 for Volunteerism in the State of Iowa:
• 856,00 volunteers worked in tandem with some volunteer organization
• an additional 54,382 helped out as individuals with no organizational affiliation
• 37.1 per cent of residents volunteered (ranking us 5th among 50 states)
• 87.7 million hours of volunteer service
• 37.5 hours per resident
• 1.8 BILLION DOLLARS of service calculated
Here are some other facts about volunteering:
• it can involve what you already love to do--garden, design, write, market, toss a ball, teach, learn
• it can improve your self-esteem
• it can give you an improved social life
• it can introduce you to new skills
• it can burn calories
• it can give you a reason to live
• to a new way of thinking about your life
• it can speed up economic recovery
• it can be fun!
Truth is, no matter what anyone else wants to believe people volunteer because we are social creatures looking for a good time and volunteering brings us together with others. It also helps us out of bad situations and helps us to recover more quickly from floods, tornadoes, health crisis, earthquakes, loss of a loved one, fires, and yes, economic downturns.
I volunteer because no matter how tired I am some days, it almost always makes me feel good. So, in a way, I’m just being selfish. Frankly, there are plenty of times that I don't want to deal with volunteering…whether it is for the school or the CDG or whatever. I like some of you have a job, three children, my own circle of family and friends and interests that I’d like to spend more time with. And yes, I too have the hope that some of this can be figured out by my elected officials. But here’s the thing; here on Main Street in small towns like ours, the elected officials are also VOLUNTEERS! So, it’s not just their problem, it’s ours to fix. To think otherwise is simply unrealistic.
So, what do we do? I think I’ll begin by asking myself if my children are volunteering along side me…and if not, I think I’ll start there. I’ve tried to show them by example…and I wanted to believe that was enough. But I am haunted by my college students’ responses. They are good people and yet believed that the problem was not theirs…it was someone else’s to fix. Truth is we need in these desperate times to call on everyone--ourselves and our kids--to work together. To do what?
Something. Anything. We must remind them that we must all help out…every day, every week, every month. It should be a part of our routine to pitch in and volunteer at something we love and that will help improve our community. We must volunteer.
And more importantly, we must teach our children to volunteer. Those students who said: it’s the government’s responsibility were taught to make it somebody else’s problem. That’s not okay. We can teach our children the value of volunteering by doing it…AND bringing them along to do it with us whenever we have the opportunity. Make it a family affair.
And to our volunteer city officials, I say: please consider the benefits of taking the time to determine, plan for what an organized VOLUNTEER CORPS that is working in unison with our local government initiatives and our Community Development Groups and what such a corps might accomplish to save our own city money
True enough, there is a vibrant group of volunteers that work together in a variety of ways in town: The Community Development Group of which I am a member is only one. Each group--whether it is Economic Development, The Booster Club or the MV Fine Arts Association, Community Club, Lions or Rotary to name just a few---is an invaluable asset to our town--and if working in tandem with our elected officials could assist in speeding up the rebuilding of our local economy. The question is: are we working with our city officials toward the collective good for the kind of community we want to live in, or not?
We need to not only buy locally; we must act locally. We must not just talk; we must do! We must volunteer! But it is up to our elected officials to assist in determining where we can best do that to be of genuine assistance…grant writing? running errands? writing copy? answering phones? There must be internships that could save staff time; there must be ways of providing the citizens a means to be involved on a regular basis. No, we do not want to eliminate jobs or step on toes, but with a plan, we might be able to do more than just balance the budget. We can grow it!
We are a Main Street Iowa Community, as designated by the Iowa Department of Economic Development, which means that we are moving in the right direction. But we must not rest on laurels here. We must ask ourselves: what skills do I have that could benefit the city in balancing its budget? What can I do as a volunteer to help defray the costs of running our own main street? Where are my talents best used? It takes a village to not just to raise a child, but to run the village…. a genuine community coalition is needed...of which we are all potential participants. Yes, my vote WAS cast but my voice must not go away, nor should my responsibility in assisting where needed...again and again and again.
We should not just contact our city council members when we are disgruntled and disappointed, we should call and ask: where can I help? We have no time...but we must find the time. We MUST make the time. Complacency is not the answer in the face of the current challenges. Let’s now just congratulate ourselves for being one the “Top Ten States for Volunteerism,” let’s show them how Main Street balances its budget…with hard work and elbow grease, a can do spirit that works alongside our seniors, our students, to not only survive this economic crisis but to thrive despite it…for the people, by the people…not just empty words but actions.. Let’s make the phone call to our own elected officials here in town, and ask: what can I do to help this Community Volunteer Corps? Tell them: “If you build it, we’ll come--and this time we’ll bring our kids!”