Why I Volunteer


                       

                                    by Neal Lemery

“Putting years of experience to work in our community on behalf of the arts brings excitement and joy. We take on unimagined projects that engage us intellectually, physically and socially. In addition to a sense of purpose, we find connection and friendship.” – Mary Corey, President, Hoffman Center, Manzanita, Oregon

            One of the organizations where I volunteer has a computerized volunteer reporting system, and I track my volunteer hours and mileage.  As tax time approaches, it provides me with some interesting numbers.  At the most, I think I only spend a couple of hours a week doing small tasks, but it adds up. The numbers go up as I realize I also volunteer in other ways, though I’m definitely a poor record keeper.  

Then, I mentally multiply that number by the approximately one hundred other volunteers in our organization. And that’s just one organization in one rural county. There are 1.8 million nonprofits in the USA, and over 65 million Americans volunteer. The number of hours and the value would be truly impressive; my calculator is not up to the task.

            Volunteer work has value.  The US Government calculates the hourly “rate” of volunteer value at $27.20/hour.  All that volunteer work really is value added to our economy, and our work provides service to the general public and to the operations of virtually every organization in the country.  

            Most volunteers don’t lend a hand as a way of improving the economy. So why do we volunteer?

            For me, there is both a sense of purpose and a sense of obligation.  For my entire life, I have benefited from the community, with countless organizations involved in my life and providing me almost every service and opportunity to improve myself that I can imagine. I’ve received a publicly funded education through high school, at very little cost to my family.  I’ve enjoyed the services of public libraries, police and fire services, transportation, communication, public health facilities and services, and the myriad other governmental and non-profit services and materials I have taken advantage of in my life.

            Yes, we’ve all contributed to those good works by paying taxes, and making some monetary donations, as well as paying many services out of pocket.  Yet, I certainly haven’t “balanced the books” by paying the full value for what I have received.

            Now that I’m retired, I have more time to return to the community what I have received in my life, a form of “payback”.  It is time to balance the books and to be generous with my time and abilities, and make my community a better place.  “Pay it forward” is a good motto to help guide our lives. 

            Volunteering and giving back is part of what citizenship requires of us.  Each of us is part of the whole. If we are able, we give back, making our community just a little better.  The work can be as simple as expressing a kind word, or lending a hand to someone in need, or offering some comfort and support.  Volunteering also means helping out when a group is taking on a task, performing some small task, and lightening someone else’s burden as we come together for an event. 

            Volunteering really has a very wide-ranging definition, and includes small acts of kindness.  Some tasks take less than a minute, and, over time, add up to our larger commitments to the common good. The work of the good neighbor, or a compassionate friend are all part of doing the work of the volunteer. 

            I also meet some nice people who are like-minded, giving and kind. They are good influences on me, and I am able to learn about their lives, and their charitable, good-hearted thinking. Being around them, and doing satisfying tasks gives me purpose.  I feel productive. And, I often gain new friends and am surrounded by happy, smiling people.  I feel I am part of the community and have a valuable role in bettering my community. Helping others also helps me. 

            Yet another benefit is learning more of what goes on in our community, how vibrant our institutions are, what services are available, and, most importantly, the wealth of talent and intelligence of my fellow citizens.  I become much more aware of the struggles of others and what are our community’s unfilled needs. Volunteering brings out the best in all of us.

            During the Pandemic, we can continue to be good volunteers.  Virtual gatherings and classes have been satisfying and informative.I write notes and letters to those I’m not able to safely visit.  One of my friends is a talented poet, so we swap poems and other writings, and act as editors and supporters for our creative efforts.  I post photos of nature and fun activities on social media, and try to keep my other postings upbeat.  When I see a funny joke or an inspiring quote, I’ll repost those, too. I also like to send a colorful and cheerful card, knowing there will be a smile at someone’s mailbox.  

            At the grocery store or post office, I’ll make it a point to say hello and have a pleasant and uplifting conversation. And, if someone needs a little help, I’ll make the effort.  A few pleasant words and a cheerful hello and nod behind my mask takes little effort, but can brighten someone’s day.  

            All of these tasks really take very little time and effort.  Doing something for someone else makes for a brighter world. I’m often reminded of the saying that you get back ten times what you give. Lives have been improved, and I have been a small part of a bigger effort. And who knows how many others’ lives will be uplifted, even in small ways. 

When I help out, when I do something nice for someone, a smile shows up on my face and life seems brighter. That’s a really nice paycheck to receive at the end of the day, more than the $27.20 an hour that the government says it is worth.

1/5/2021

Winners and Losers: Post Election Thoughts


            

                        By Neal Lemery

The quiet you are hearing today as you sip your coffee is the resumption of normal life after the frantic election season.  The passionate voices and political advertising noise are fading into the past. We can collect our thoughts without being bombarded, manipulated, and offered endless rides on the roller coasters of political hype.  I need to burn off the adrenaline and angst that the marketers and a number of my friends and neighbors have been firing up in our community life.  

            It might even be safe to have coffee with a friend and exchange pleasantries at the grocery store and post office without donning our political armor. I’d welcome a time of not having heated encounters that will erupt into cultural warfare and social media bloodletting. 

            One way to think of the election results is by listing the winners and losers. That’s painful and continues the divisiveness that has marked this political season.  And, remember, the “losers” are still around, still involved in our community. Like all of us, they should be a positive force for building community. 

Labeling and belittling people isn’t productive, to say the least. I, for one, have had my fill of negative politics this year. There will be other elections and other conversations and debates about important community issues.  Those discussions should include all of us, no matter who received the most votes this week.  

            There are real winners in this election:  For one, democracy and voter participation.  80% of those registered made the effort to vote.  Lots of people got involved and talked about issues, policies and goals that are important to all of us.  And, secondly, the community won.  All this energy and passion educated many of us about important questions and issues that affect how we live and where we go from here. Many of us are fired up to get more involved and bring about change.  

            No matter what the election returns mean to each of us, we still live in our community. We still have family, friends, and neighbors whom we value.  We are still together, and we still share our lives, our hopes, and our dreams.  I still want to believe that the vast majority of us are good people, who are living their lives with compassion and a determination to make a better world.  

            Life goes on.  No matter who received the most votes, our community issues are still here, and still need our attention.  We still have work to do.  Not necessarily political work, mind you, but vital work nonetheless. Together we are stronger.

                                    11/4/2020

Immersed in the Richness of Community Life


 

 

by Neal Lemery

 

 

I found myself in the heart of the richness of my community’s life the other day. Tillamook High School charity drive students were handing out checks to a wide variety of community organizations, funding grants for over twenty community projects and activities.

The money comes from a ten day frenzy of fund raising in February that engaged the entire community.  High school students, along with parents and other community volunteers, pitched in to raise money.  Car washes, dinners, garage sales, a scrap metal drive, donkey basketball, silent auctions, and other events made sure that you have no reason to cook dinner that week, or stay at home on a rainy evening. The high school classes competed with each other, and organized the various events so that every day was filled with tempting meal choices and other activities.

It was also a week of socializing with the rest of the community, reconnecting with old friends, and strengthening our community ties.

“It’s all about relationships,” I heard on numerous occasions.

The fund raising capabilities of these kids is phenomenal, usually raising over $200,000 during the week, astonishing in a rural area of maybe 8,000 people.  Half of the funds are given to the Doernbecher children’s hospital, and half stays in the community. This is an annual affair, and has been going on since the 1950s, when it started as part of the March of Dimes campaign against polio.

The student committee invited community groups to apply for grants, and again, the community reaps the benefits of our hard-working, community-minded youth.

This year, $56,000 was given to local non-profits to support their own charitable activities in the community.  Applicants have to justify how the funds will improve community life.

I gathered with people from other organizations, as students began handing out the checks. We shared our stories with each other, eagerly chatting about where the money would go, how people’s lives were touched.  We are so rich in the ways that we help others, and make a real difference.

I happily received one of the checks, destined to help one of my organizations improve its capacity to serve the community, and to give youth another activity to enrich their lives.  There were smiles all around, as the students connected with us, as we shared the joy of giving back to the community, and building better lives.

“Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place…”. (David Treuer, The Heart Beat of Wounded Knee)

As we all gathered in front of the high school, we stood united.  In this small town, I didn’t see an unfamiliar face. We had all played a part in the charity drive, and now, we had come together, to share the rewards, to invest back into the community, and build again in service to the common good.

That sense of satisfaction, of common community purpose continued on, as I stood in line at the bank a few minutes later with some of the others who had received checks.

“A special day,” one of them remarked. “A day of giving back to the community, and making a difference.”

This celebration was in sharp contrast to what I’d just seen on the national news, filled with stories of disasters, political discord, and crime. How nice is it, I thought, to be part of building community, rather than hearing of social discontent and chaos.

As the passive observer and a consumer of the national political and cultural scene, I keep wondering what is my role in all of that.  I tire of being the passive witness, the feeling of impotence and paralysis.

Can I be an instrument of change?  Rather than just hear about a problem, I could step up and be a force for making a difference. Yet, most of the organizations that operate nationally, seem to be only wanting my check, or me to sign an electronic petition, rather than invite me to roll up my sleeves and take on a problem, fully engaged, hands on, giving a little of my talent, a little of my sweat and time. I yearn for that sense of connection, and relationship.

That opportunity is right here in front of me, I realized. Here and now is the place where change can and does happen.

Locally, there are ready made roles for all of us.  Our neighbors, our friends, and family are deeply involved in local life, in activities that are changing how we live, providing opportunities and resources for others in our community.  Almost literally outside of my front door, I can be involved, and I can help make a difference in other people’s lives and the health and wellbeing of my community.

I saw that in the smiles of the high school students the other day, their joy a reflection of their own hard work, their own commitment to the community, their satisfaction in applying their own talent, time and sweat into making a real difference, in building better lives and a better place to live for their neighbors.

 

 

5/1/2019

Be The Change You Want To See


Do you want to make a difference in the world? Do you want to see some real change in the way the world is, and how your community functions?

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

“Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect the nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience and just plain loving each other.” (Erma Bombeck)

Do you want to live in a better neighborhood, a better community? Do you think the world could be a better place? Are you tired of hearing about the troubles of the world and all the negative political rhetoric? Are you frustrated that things are getting worse, and there’s nothing you can do that would make a difference?

Then, get involved and volunteer. Connect with a person, help them out, and make a difference. Take a few minutes, an hour, maybe a day, and offer your talent. Pay attention to someone, work together on a project, or simply have a conversation and offer a kind ear, a helping hand.

Find a group where you can get involved. Or do something on your own.

It can start with just a simple conversation at the grocery store or with a neighbor, a few kind words, and maybe a helping hand.
Volunteers are at the center of our community life.

Our schools, churches, community festivals and gatherings, museums and parks are staffed by volunteers. Much of what happens around here would quickly fade away without dedicated volunteers.

On a more personal level, our volunteers are helping an elderly neighbor with their yard work, or bringing them a meal. Others tutor a child, or help out at school or church. The possibilities are endless.

Our community calendar in the local paper is filled with activities run by volunteers, working to make this community a better place to live.

I see the impact of volunteerism everywhere. Without them, our welcome mat wouldn’t be as inviting, and as enjoyable for our visitors. Our youth and our seniors wouldn’t be as integrated into our social fabric. Our community wouldn’t be nearly as vibrant and supportive.

Look around you. Volunteers make a difference, and they change lives.

I volunteer. I find a project, I connect with a person, and pay attention to them, and put action into my caring for their wellbeing. I make a difference and my heart is filled with a sense of purpose, a sense of accomplishment. My volunteer work at the local youth prison and with master gardeners gives me a sense of purpose, and helps change people’s lives for the better.

In volunteering, I become an instrument of change. I am part of the solution to a small part of the world’s problems, rather than a person who just sits back and complains. I have a purpose, and become a voice for doing good.

The payback for me is amazing. What I give I receive back tenfold. I feel better about myself, I contribute, I connect, and I become a better member of my community.

Volunteerism is all about health, my health, the community’s, my state, my nation, and the world.

I can even stand to watch the evening news, and know that I don’t need to just listen to the litany of the world’s problems and get caught up in all that drama. I’m not the passive listener, who can easily say the world is a miserable, hopeless place. Instead, I am part of the answer, an agent of positive change.

—Neal Lemery, July 26, 2016

Under Construction


My town is going through some big changes. The state highway department is starting a major project, re-routing the intersection of the two major highways that funnel all the tourists, and most of the locals through downtown. A familiar motel and two restaurants have been reduced to rubble and hauled away in huge trucks.

And the city has decided to join in the chaos, by renovating and replacing most of the water mains in the downtown area. Ditches are dug, covered with temporary steel plates, and new water main pipes are finding their way beneath the torn up streets.

Yet, there is more afoot here than meets the eye. Other renovations are underway, more fundamental, and more in the realm of revitalizing our spirit.

A major shelter and service center for homeless people and folks fresh out of the local jail and prisons has opened, offering on site services and a healthy path to personal dignity and reformation.

The community college is building a brand new building, and offering new programs, bringing together other agencies to collaborate on problem solving and innovation.

Even our estuaries are getting a fresh start. Large scale work is underway to open up sloughs, take out dikes, and renovate tide gates, revitalizing our estuaries, restoring salmon habitat, improving movement of flood waters, and re-creating a healthy environment for fish, birds, trees, and reviving an essential part of our web of life. We even decided not to squabble about the project, working together in a collaborative fashion to reduce winter flooding, improve salmon habitat, and literally finding and improving our common ground.

In that work, our young people have led the way, taking their education on improving the world out into the waterways, teaching us biology, flood dynamics, and cooperative learning and problem solving.

Other youth are growing native plants for streambank restoration, raising salmon, and developing community gardens. Learning at school now includes getting out and making our world a classroom, giving us all a new paradigm of what education means.

Farmers are studying improved agricultural techniques, working with others to be better stewards of the earth, implementing new methods, and testing out new crops.

Volunteerism is rampant and a wide range of non-profit activities fill the community calendar.

The coffee shop where I hang out is abuzz with meetings and gatherings. Familiar faces, but folks who are busy developing new programs and taking on long standing problems.

“We can do it,” is the attitude now around here, and changes are coming, driven by a common desire to do something meaningful and make this corner of the world a better place.

It is fundamental change, not from the top down, not from the politicians in Washington, but instead, its coming from my neighbors, and my community, and those quiet conversations next to me in the coffee shop.

–Neal Lemery 5/3/16

Peace Making


Peace Making

It is a lofty goal. Religions preach it. Politicians speechify it. Song writers laud it. We all like to say we are peaceful, loving people.

And, it’s really the other guy who can’t get along, who pushes us into the argument, the fight, the war.

“They started it,” we say, justifying our own escalation of the argument, as we stiffen our backs, and pick up the nastier word, the bigger stick.

Our wars are longer now. This country’s ten year war in Afghanistan barely makes the main section of the daily newspaper, and rarely hits the front page. Our “victory” in Iraq really isn’t seen as a victory of democracy over tyranny, but rather a bad nightmare we should really rather forget.

The latest Israeli-Palestinian rocket war is seen as inevitable and unsolvable. And, folks quickly blame one side or the other for the terror and destruction, the deaths of families, and the unbending, inflexible positions of the major players.

Not many people see the irony in both sides justifying their geographical arguments on scriptures and theologies that also preach unconditional love and peacefulness being the true direction to humanity from an all loving God.

And, at home, war is being waged. We have the highest rate of jailing our fellow citizens of any country in the world. And, we criminalize and jail drug addicts. Our economy continues to impoverish millions of families. Our politics of late turn into high paid deceptive and vicious advertising and name calling, rather than looking towards solutions to difficult problems, and an expression of compassion and helping others achieve the American Dream.

Aside from all the noise, a quiet revolution is going on. Without fanfare, without a lot of chest thumping and back slapping, change is afoot.

Volunteers, neighbors, students, good people from all walks of life are making a difference. Soup kitchens and warming centers are springing up in the basements of churches. Food banks, community gardens, and community centers enjoy quiet and energetic support. Twelve step programs are strong and are attracting healthy members. Prison outreach programs, local music jams, potlucks, and community thrift stores are thriving.

We baby boomers are retiring now, in record numbers, and we are volunteering, helping out, talking with people. We are engaged in our communities, our neighborhoods, and in our homes. People are tending their gardens, taking up crafts, and working with others. We teach each other new skills, and we are reaching out to others, on every level.
The grass roots in this country are healthy and strong. Social media has expanded the front porch and the neighborhood coffee shop into a bigger, national neighborhood of old friends, old classmates, and long lost relatives. New connections are made, and our common humanity, our common passion for connecting with others, for caring for each other, are re-weaving the social fabric.

As a country, and as a community, we are re-creating our social conversations, and deciding what topics we will take on. Newspapers and the major television networks, and other corporate media are finding their audiences shrinking. New books are now self-published, and marketed by word of mouth and on Facebook and blogs. We are taking charge of what we talk about and what we learn.

The richness of our own wisdom, our heritage, our values, and our work is now easily shared, and easily explored. What I think and what I want to say to others now can be quickly “aired” to not just my household, not just to my buddies at the coffee shop, but to the world. With a few keystrokes, my morning rant about one thing or another can be put out to all my friends, and, literally, to the world.

Someone thousands of miles away can read what I think, and can find my thoughts, on their computer and their cell phone. “Google it” is the motto of this decade, and the back fence conversations start up with a smart phone text or a reply to a Facebook posting. We’ve become master weavers of the social fabric.

We’ve rediscovered the value of those rich one on one conversations, the power of reaching out and simply saying, “I care about you.” Yes, we do that electronically, but we also do that face to face, neighbor to neighbor. This is our reality; we are rejecting the mass media view of the world, and being told what to think and what is truly important.

This morning, the cashier at Denny’s and I had a rich conversation about the real meaning of Thanksgiving and thankfulness, and the crass commercialization of Christmas. She’s rejecting that commercial hoopla and instead, she’s gathering and distributing underwear and toys for foster kids. Her mom is mentoring those kids, filling a need in her community, changing lives.

I’m spending time with young men at the youth prison in my town, playing guitar, being friends, hopefully showing them a more fulfilling way to live. Me buying them coffee at the canteen, just being there, and listening, is opening hearts, and changing all of us.

Yes, small steps, but in the right direction. Together, we are an army, working for change.

Perhaps this country’s “Arab Spring” starts with those conversations at Denny’s, or engaging your neighbor in an idea to revitalize your town. It starts with each one of us, one step, and then another.

We’ve rediscovered the power of taking the initiative, of finding our voice in our community. When I post something on Facebook, or write a rant about something on my blog, or “share” a particular article I’ve found on line, I’m really joining my neighbors on the front porch, or at the coffee shop.

I don’t have to depend on the corporate media to set the agenda, or tell me what the real “news” is, or what to believe. I’m my own news editor now, and I produce my own news show. My friends and neighbors do that, too. Our conversations, in person and on line, are abuzz with new ideas, rich discussions, and the rebuilding of our collective social consciousness.

In all that buzz, we are rediscovering the power of that one on one conversation, about caring for each other, and getting involved with each other. That is the practice of love, love of self, love of family, love of our fellow humankind. Isn’t that the true meaning of the holidays, our true spiritual calling?

We are getting off the couch and thinking for ourselves again, and rebuilding our community, making peace.

–Neal Lemery 11/22/2012