Help wanted: Volunteers needed to sustain traditions
(Photo courtesy of the city of Marietta)
By Eric Scicchitano Volunteers power the community events that define summertime and holidays in the Valley. Now, the steady flow of new helpers needed to re-energize these events has slowed to a trickle and threatens the future of some of the area's treasured traditions. Mifflinburg's Christkindl Market draws thousands to the borough ahead of Christmas annually. The Union County Veterans' 4 of July Parade does the same each summer for Lewisburg, Pa. Nevertheless, leaders behind both events fear each could disappear without an influx of new volunteers. Another popular parade in Lewisburg, the Victorian Holiday Parade held in December, ended in 2015 for that very reason, organizers told The Daily Item at the time. That was also the fate of New Year's Eve celebrations this year in Sunbury, Beavertown and McClure, Pa. — each canceled for lack of volunteers. “It's been very hard. From the time I started as secretary five years ago until now, we've lost more than half the committee members," said Phyllis Marquette of the July 4 parade committee. “At some point, you get to the point you can't do it anymore." “The people we have are good and have been involved. They've put in their time and want to retire, so to speak," said Joannah (Skucek) McGregor, outgoing Christkindl board president and Market founder. “They feel an obligation to hang on and it's frustrating." Volunteers are a finite resource and there seems no shortage of groups and causes in need of help. Civic groups, social clubs, libraries, schools, church causes, youth sports — all need men and women to assist. Community-specific organizations draw from the same pool of helpers and they must compete with whatever barriers prevent 7 in 10 adults in the United States from volunteering, according to statistics from the federal Corporation for National and Community Service. How to help Lack of free time and inflexible commitment related to volunteer work were the top reasons, according to a study by the Stanford Center on Longevity. Researchers discovered some people simply were unaware of available opportunities or didn't value causes they were aware of. Another reason people gave: No one asked for their help. “The best any organization can do is work to ensure those great volunteers you do have don't get burnt out. The most effective strategy is to cultivate specific people for specific, realistic responsibilities," said Joanne Troutman, executive director, Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way. A 2016 study published in The Journal of Social Psychology found there are two types of volunteers: Those who help for their own gratification, motivated by external rewards, and those motivated by altruistic goals to help others. Either group can be a good volunteer, the study found, but the latter group will likely have greater commitment and achieve greater personal reward through the work, according to the study, “Understanding and encouraging volunteerism and community involvement." Troutman advised organizations be cautious and identify the desires of volunteers. A cattle call for volunteers isn't likely to succeed. That's where specificity in organizational roles is needed, she said. Engagement is also a must, but an engagement that is measured. “If you don't keep them engaged they won't stick around. On the flip side, if you overwhelm them, especially too soon, they'll run away screaming," Troutman said. More committees than volunteers Kevin Bittenbender, president of the Veterans' Committee for the July 4 celebration in Lewisburg — a celebration traditionally held in late June ahead of Independence Day — said the event takes more than money. More than 10 people showed for a meeting earlier this month, including two new volunteers. That's a big crowd these days, Bittenbender said. He pointed to an agenda with a list of 20 committees, and some committees were missing from the page. Each committee preferably would have several people working on different tasks. Instead, a single volunteer takes on whole responsibilities for several committees. The point, Bittenbender said of the list, was to contrast how many volunteers are available compared to how many would be needed for the event's administrative structure. Ideally, 25 to 30 would volunteer for the year-round commitment, minus two months off in the summer following the parade, he said. Upward of 100 volunteers are needed on the day of the event. This year, Bittenbender said all events will be held in just one day. The Veterans' Committee — with four executive administrators paid about $5,000 annually — put out a call for more volunteers last month. If more help isn't had, Bittenbender said the parade's future is grim. “We are here on our own because we believe in it. We believe in who it honors and what it honors. I think we do a disservice to our vets if we don't do anything," Bittenbender said. The need for year-round board members and event help is the same for Christkindl organizers, some of whom are 80 years or older. Matthew Wagner, the incoming Market president, estimated up to 16 people along with 10 federal prison inmates help with hands-on work at the Market. He seeks for 12 to 16 more people to help set up and clean up afterward. Another four to six people to aid the seven board directors are needed, he said. Tasks for Christkindl vary. People are needed to handle communications and website maintenance. Then there is the need for decorating, building and disassembling vendor huts, maintaining props and equipment. The Market traditionally has a live Nativity scene. The length of the live scene dropped to a few hours each day as it was harder to get volunteers to play the roles. Live animals aren't a problem. That's a good draw, too, especially for kids, Wagner said. This coming December, it may just be a scene with live animals and handcrafted, life-sized figures standing in for Mary, Joseph and the others. Wagner is a retired teacher and former band director at Mifflinburg Area School District. He said communities like Mifflinburg, Pa., aren't reaching the younger generation to take up events like Christkindl and carry on the tradition. “I'm not throwing stones at them, I just don't think they've been taught or learned that for these good things to continue, the younger generation needs to step in. We have lots of wonderful events that take place in the Valley. I don't know what it is," Wagner said. `Good problem' Trends in volunteerism are volatile. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found in Sept. 2015 that 24.9 percent of American adults volunteered. Educated married couples who were employed and had juvenile children were among the most likely to donate time to volunteer causes. The median time spent volunteering in 2015 was 52 hours, or one hour a week. That's the last year the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau released a report on volunteerism. The rate of volunteerism had been in decline since 2005 when the Bureau found 28.8 percent of American adults volunteered. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. Its own study released in November found American adults are now volunteering at the highest rate ever — 30.3 percent. The organization found volunteers are generally more engaging personalities and that volunteers were more likely than their counterparts to donate money to charity. Generation X topped all volunteers at a rate of 36.4 percent while baby boomers gave them most hours of service, 2.2 billion. No demographic volunteered at a higher rate than working mothers, 46.7 percent. Religious groups, sports and arts endeavors and education or youth service groups were the causes attracting the most volunteers, CNCS found. Van Wagner, who helps organize the Danville Heritage Festival, said a lack of money and not a lack of volunteers led to a streamlining of that festival. It's smaller and shorter on purpose. Wagner said the festival focuses on the story of Danville and in doing so, allows volunteers a role in sharing specific snippets in unique ways. Dave Decoteau led bike tours last year while Danville Area School District art teacher Vanessa Ruckle worked with students to create posters. Pete Flemming together with Gladys Magill helped make the fireworks happen, Wagner said. The organizing committee regularly meets year-round with about 10 people volunteering. Wagner estimated “another few dozen" held with festival events like a 5k run, museum tours, car cruise and arranging for musicians and historians. This year's festival is July 19-21. “Actually, the Danville Heritage Festival has had the `good problem' of almost too many people asking to help out," Wagner said. Service training Susquehanna University introduced a service leadership program two years ago toward strengthening the relationship between the campus to the surrounding community — Susquehanna University Service Leaders. Students apply for entry into the four-year program. Those accepted receive a $5,000 scholarship annually. They're paired with community agencies with whom they work six to eight hours a week: Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way, Regional Engagement Center of Selinsgrove, SUMMIT Early Learning, Union-Snyder Community Action Agency and Central Valley Mediation Center and the Lewisburg Children's Museum. A combined 18 first-year and second-year students entered the program and all but two remain active, according to Sarah E. Farbo, assistant director for service leaders program and career development center. The program serves to offer training in leadership and youth development. Farbo likened it to a service internship. It's based on The Bonner Program, a national model joining higher learning and community service. “You're really asking the students to be committed to a community partner long-term," Farbo said. “The more engaged students are, the more successful they are and more likely they are to graduate." Eric Rowe, 64, of Selinsgrove, Pa., is someone who may be termed a committed volunteer. Rowe chairs the United Way's Community Impact Committee. He's on the executive committee of the Central PA Career Pathways Partnership, president of the Selinsgrove Area High School Alumni Association, member of the Sharon Lutheran Church Council, is board chair of the Selinsgrove Area High School Agriculture Committee, chair of the Athena Committee of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Selinsgrove Area High School Guidance Committee. “I think that's about everything," Rowe said after ticking off his volunteer commitments. “It keeps me busy." Rowe said he's found, especially through the Alumni Association, that many people simply aren't interested. That's fine, he said. He doesn't take it personally. In terms of event planning, he said it's a bit easier to recruit for that compared to getting people to serve in administrative roles. “Every group I'm involved with, we can do some good," Rowe said. “It's in my nature. I've just never been one to sit on the sidelines and not necessarily criticize, but point out how things may be done better. If I'm going to do that, it's up to me to put my money where my mouth is." Little League International succeeds on the efforts of its estimated 1 million volunteers in all 50 states and 80 countries. Kevin Fountain, director of communications, said the corporate entity recruits for the annual World Series events but that local leagues must find coaches and umpires on their own. That means pitching the value of volunteering for the youth baseball organization to civic organizations and service groups, asking parents for help and driving for volunteer help on registration days, Fountain said. Underserved communities as part of the organization's Urban Initiative have proven the most difficult areas to recruit and retain volunteers. “The world itself, it's struggling with volunteerism," Fountain said, citing volunteers' schedules and the value people put on volunteering, or lack thereof — both of which Stanford researchers cited as well. Little League offers its own different opportunities. There are board-level commitments where people commit to meetings and make league decisions. And then there are coaches who commit to practices and games within a season and umpires needed for slates of games. “It's such a community-driven organization. For some, it's easy to just go out, volunteer and watch kids play baseball and softball, a game they love," Fountain said.