Where Have all the Wilton Volunteers Gone?

“The future depends on what we do in the present.”  — Mahatma Gandhi

Today, 200-plus kids in Wilton are planning to run to help raise awareness for Save the Children. One week ago, both the bi-annual Minks to Sinks sale (benefitting Norwalk’s Family & Children’s Agency) and Ambler Farm Day attracted innumerable visitors, and relied heavily on volunteers to even occur – 160 in the case of the former, more than 150 for Ambler Farm Day. Wilton is a community that is all about giving back:  rallying around a cause or a neighbor in need of support, donating and fund-raising efforts that are second-to-none, and greasing the wheels of the many wonderful non-profits that make this town a more enriching, exceptional place to live. 

Traditionally, many volunteers have been parents with small children, who have recently left the workplace to care full-time for their kids, and are seeking additional fulfillment outside their homes. As their children age into a full school day, these dynamic individuals find themselves with time on their hands and an itch to get involved, and become integral parts of the organizations they share their time with. Some spend years on board, instituting creative ideas and events that raise money and awareness, and the machine keeps moving.

Those in the trenches serving on volunteer boards, however, are starting to see a troubling trend:  fewer volunteers are stepping up to lend their time. Anecdotally, some say that not as many young parents are staying home to raise their children, more seniors are leaving town (and taking their free time and expertise with them), and more residents are seeking full- or part-time employment which cuts down on their leisure hours.  And as many of these once-fledgling organizations have grown into robust entities, their need for more hands has increased as well.

The Wilton Education Foundation (WEF), for example, has had great success in recent years with their “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? event. At this writing, there is a need for someone to chair this event in addition to volunteers to help across the board–selling tickets, recruiting contestants, soliciting donations for the program, and in other ways.

Vivian McVey, WEF board member, said, “We’re seeing that more people are going back to work and working more hours. I hear all the time from prospective volunteers that their time is so limited they only want to volunteer for things that give them direct face-time with their kids like field trips or class projects. I think this is where organizations like ours suffer. The work that is done doesn’t always allow for interaction with our children, and in some cases it may even take additional time away from children to attend meetings and organize events.”  Other WEF initiatives are in need of volunteers, such as the upcoming “Read Aloud day” event on November 7th. McVey said that extra help is always needed and welcomed.

In the case of Ambler Farm, an increase in membership, programs and production has created the need for more volunteers. Neil Gluckin, president of the Friends of Ambler Farm, noted, “As organizations like ours evolve, so do opportunities for volunteers. There is a need for visionary leaders, program chairs, and board members here, in addition to digging in the dirt.”  Those interested in volunteering time and talents in Ambler’s fields, farm stand/farmer’s market booth, helping with programs, marketing, events, and virtually anything else are invited to contact the farm via amblerfarm@gmail.com.

Ambler Farm and other organizations have implemented new ways of ensuring their survival:  the Farm, for instance, is hiring a part-time, paid coordinator to take on some of the work that volunteers have traditionally done (note: applications are no longer being accepted). The Wilton Children’s Theater (WCT), which provides year-round theatrical experiences for town youth, requires mandatory parent involvement by all who have a child participating in a current show.

Kathleen Maloney, board member for WCT, said, “Our model really works for people because it’s a finite length of time, in a specific role, for each year” that people volunteer. In addition, “the first year is your learning year, and you’re mentored by someone who had the role last year – as ticket sales chair, say – and the second year is your teaching year.” The model guarantees perpetuity and allows adults to learn new skills and rotate through jobs. As Maloney said, “I didn’t know what a screw gun was, and then I got to do sets for two years.  I love it.”

But finding the funding to hire help or even making it mandatory on the part of volunteers can be hard for some organizations, especially ones that seem to be very grassroots or entirely philanthropic and dependent on donations. What’s harder is that diminishing volunteer numbers could threaten results,   the success of groups’ projects and even their existence.

Just look at Wilton Go Green taking 2012 off from having a Go Green Festival after their first two successful years, all because no volunteers stepped up to run it; or the way declining volunteer numbers impacted last year’s Relay for Life and you can see how it can sometimes be touch and go for an organization without a deep pool of help.

Sometimes it takes the threat of losing an event – or an activity for a whole season – to compel people to step up to volunteer.  As of Sept. 21 of this year, the 7th grade fun night at Middlebrook was in danger of being cancelled due to lack of adult volunteers.  A strongly-worded plea–and notice of likely cancellation–went out in the school’s PTA newsletter, the Middlebrook Messenger, and the following day two people stepped up to chair the event.  Michelle Doggett, member of the nominating committee for the Middlebrook PTA, said, “Maybe if parents see events disappear they will step up to the plate.” She noted, “Our children really  treasure these fun nights and spending time with their peers. Volunteer parents are key to the success of these events.”

Another Wilton organization that relies on volunteers to enhance our children’s lives is the Wilton Youth Council (WYC). Per its website, WYC is dedicated to the continued positive development of the social and emotional environment of our youth. Like others in this article, it is an all-volunteer, non-profit community organization that relies on contributions to deliver proven programs for all who want to participate. Contributions come from private foundations, individuals and grants. Board member Maria Wilcox said, “The WYC strives to empower kids to make good decisions in their lives.”

The WYC runs specific programs, including:  Youth to Youth/CODES; PeerVention (High School)/PeerConnection (7th and 8th Graders); Parent Connection (a parent-driven committee providing educational forums on youth related topics for the community); Task Force to Reduce Substance Abuse; and Class Projects. The WYC is always looking for new parents with fresh ideas – current specific volunteer opportunities include Assistant Treasurer, Communications, Parent Connections, and Secretary. Contact Maria Wilcox at sigwilcox@yahoo.com or Joanna Copley at jlcopley77@aol.com.

This group is particularly important in shaping the future of Wilton and the community at large, as it helps foster good choices and educates kids about the dangers of substance abuse. It also creates a sense of community that in turn helps to create the desire to “pay it forward.” As kids watch their parents get involved in the community, and they get involved themselves, the world can keep turning on the wheels of volunteerism. At least that’s one way Wilton is trying to keep the volunteers in the game–by training new volunteers from the ranks!

Do some GOOD today – check out the list of organizations in green typeface to the bottom right of the GMW Volunteer page or Community page, click on one or more that interest you, and contact them to see how you can help.  Do what you can to make sure they stay on our list, and stay alive!