by Paul Smart
It used to be that volunteering was a natural element of community life. Back before smart phones, computers, television, lending libraries, regular work weeks, and pay checks, it was part of one’s life. You lived alongside other people. Certain things had to be done for the comfort or safety of all: a barn raising, putting out fires, road building, caring for the elderly and sick.
Then came the busy-ness of modern life. Volunteering became a personal thing, something one did because others one knew did it. Except in certain towns, where the influx of new residents wanting to be part of a place joined fire departments and ambulance services, school and library boards, and the various other efforts that make communities what they are… and special.
A decade or so ago, some municipalities started recognizing the role such volunteers played by hosting volunteer days, recognition ceremonies, and town-wide picnics. In 2009, a small group of committed volunteers launched UlsterCorps to bring other volunteers together with some of the organizations that needed more help.
Now, seven years later, UlsterCorps has connected thousands of people with dozens of Ulster County agencies that provide food, clothing, shelter, emergency services, literacy training, child and elder care, animal welfare, and other benefits to the area’s most vulnerable residents. They’ve become part of the local fabric, a way for agencies and ad hoc efforts to achieve their goals despite budget cuts and that afore-mentioned “busy-ness” so many feel these days. Their website hooks would-be volunteers together with a wide range of opportunities to serve the needs of others, from one-time events to ongoing commitments. Those needing help can look amongst would-be volunteers for the perfect match.
Along the way, volunteer efforts in the region have gained impetus through UlsterCorps-hosted summits, coordination teams for everyday and emergency situations, and a big push towards the added effectiveness of a growing number of National Days of Service, including the recent I Love My Park Day through the September 11 Day of Recognition and Service to the recently-reconfigured Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service. Not to forget a 75-person Glean Team, and hosts of participating farms up and down the Hudson Valley, that harvests, processes and distributes surplus produce each harvest season.
That latter project, which gets at the spirit of volunteerism as it morphs with the new concept of a rebirthed Sharing Society and greater sustainability within and between communities, came about with much help from the Rondout Valley Growers Association, whose director Deborah DeWan has helped foster volunteerism through work with everyone from the Catskill Center for Conservation & Development and Catskill Watershed Corporation to Scenic Hudson and the Ashokan Center.
“When I first came to the Hudson Valley it was volunteering that connected me to the community. It provided personal satisfaction and allowed me to feel like I was giving back,” she said. “UlsterCorps is an astounding group and frankly, their leadership has been essential to making so many programs and organizations in Ulster County work so much better. Their values of collaboration and dedication, of doing just what they say they’ll do, have helped make the region’s entire volunteer system work better.”
Organizations with roots in volunteering, by both fostering and working with its attributes to being better healthcare, housing help, environmental teaching and other means of engaging communities young and old, are rife in the area these days; a sign of the progressivism of the Hudson Valley now, and back into its past. Think Wild Earth, the Spark Media Project, the Marbletown-based Rondout Valley Holistic Health Community and its free monthly clinic days, as well as the macro-thinking Re>Think Local, which brings a regional mix of business, arts, agriculture and community to the efforts started several years ago by BALLE, the national business alliance of values-aligned entrepreneurs, business networks and local economy funders with which its affiliated.
Or think even wider, for that matter, to all the efforts going on within our library systems, town governments, community action entities, parent teacher organizations, and fire and emergency companies… all similarly based on volunteerism. And hence the spreading and deepening of the shared, sustainable, and overall communal aspects of our lives together these days.
“A resource dedicated to fostering a culture of volunteerism, collaborative work, and community service…our mission is to educate about volunteerism and best practices, facilitate successful and effective volunteer placements, and build collaborations among nonprofit organizations, local government agencies, and businesses engaged in community involvement throughout Ulster County,” is how UlsterCorps defines its mission.
Or as that first Volunteers’ Day effort in Woodstock put it 13 years ago: “While we are reminded everyday of the considerable acts of kindness and personal generosity that our volunteers offer us on a daily basis, never asking to be thanked, on Volunteers’ Day, the volunteers are the “Guests of Honor.” This is our community’s expression of gratitude. A community should never take its volunteers for granted.”
To learn more about Ulster Corps and all the volunteer-based and supported not-for-profits and other efforts it works with around the region, visit its informative website at ulstercorps.org.