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Harnessing the Volunteer Spirit

By Phil Bors on June 10th, 2015

Public places that facilitate play, physical activity and healthy food access are critical for a healthy community. However, large projects like parks, greenways and farmers’ markets typically take years to plan, finance and build, and they require significant and steady public resources to maintain. Public works and parks departments must spend their modest budgets wisely to sustain existing facilities and be equally resourceful to create new healthy spaces. One solution, which capitalizes on residents’ urge to “give back” to the community, is to recruit volunteers.

Well-organized volunteers have long been tremendous (and often overlooked) community assets. Crafty organizers have realized that a “flash mob” of volunteers to clean up parks and build garden beds will not only provide much-needed labor but will also raise awareness and buy-in for these precious public spaces. Consider a few ways that these government officials, businesses, non-profit organizations and volunteers have come together to improve their communities:

  • Raleigh, NC—Wake County Smart Start recently organized an event with NC State’s Natural Learning Initiative and Keller Williams Realty to coincide with “Red Day,” the company’s annual day of service. This year, 80 Keller Williams employees helped create outdoor learning environments at eight child-care centers by creating vegetable gardens, planting trees and building trails and other play features.
  • Santa Ana, CA—The city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Agency leveraged the good will and labor of 400 volunteers attending a multi-day interfaith gathering (photo, above). The small army of helpers were supplied with shovels, rakes, mulch, trash bags and tree saplings to help the city enhance and beautify parks and a well-used neighborhood trail. The Parks Agency also works with Santa Ana’s neighborhood associations, which are important venues for civic engagement and have produced many of the city’s elected officials.
  • Fitchburg, MA—The Montachusett Opportunity Council’s teen Peer Leaders helped power Fun ‘n FITchburg and the parks commission to create the city’s Adopt-A-Park The program is jointly administered by the departments of parks and public works and establishes important roles for interested volunteers to monitor parks, regularly clean them, perform minimal landscaping, promote their use, document unsafe conditions and attend an annual meeting of other park adopters.
  • New York, NY—The Partnerships for Parks is a program of the City Parks Foundation, a public–private approach for protecting New York City’s parks and open spaces and building leadership along the way. Thousands of New Yorkers donate their time and labor for It’s My Park service projects, which encourage residents of all ages to improve green spaces, shorelines and other public places. Learn the 10 reasons that New Yorkers participate in this great effort.

Government budgets will never fully cover the cost of building and maintaining all of the convenient, appealing and active public spaces that residents seek. To help bridge that recurring gap, local organizers in government, business and non-profit agencies can create partnerships that match the interest of volunteers groups to help their community with the real needs to maintain and improve healthy built environments.

What group can you join or organize this season?

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time