Volunteering Is All About Building Community

Written by Erin Shawgo
    Thursday, 17 October 2013
Volunteering Is All About Building Community

I often am impressed by the volunteers at the Urban Ecology Center. Whether it's the unique skills they bring, their dedication, or what they teach me about my own job as volunteer coordinator, the people that we get to include in our Center's community never ceases to amaze me.

The volunteer team has been thinking lately about volunteering as a form of community engagement and it's had me pondering the role of volunteering beyond getting work done for the Center.

This fall, our land steward at the Menomonee Valley branch, Jeff Veglahn, gave me an opportunity to put my processing into practice. Jeff told me he would like to start planting in the new Three Bridges Park before the end of the season, and he needed volunteer help to do it. 

Now this isn’t as easy as going in and planting a few plants. Because of some of the “risks” involved in managing a new park, such as erosion and harsh conditions in the first phase of planting, the Center will be taking on limited areas within the park to manage. In order to begin planting, Jeff had to write a proposal for the park stakeholder group and guarantee that there would be enough support to get the proposed plantings done. I felt confident we could get the volunteers we needed, but my mindset was still in the vein of completing the job and getting the plants planted. I had yet to see how my lesson in community engagement fit in. 

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The planting began with our regulars. Every Wednesday the Menomonee Valley branch hosts a "Work Outside Wednesday" (WOW) drop-in program. I spoke with one of these WOW volunteers, John Husz, who has been helping at the Center for the last year. John lives on the North side of the Valley and enjoys a short walk to our Center on days he volunteers. When I asked John about his experience with planting in Three Bridges Park, he said the following:

"I have really enjoyed the experience- not only the knowledge that we are helping create an environment to be shared and enjoyed, but the camaraderie of working on the Urban Ecology Center team.

It is also a valuable learning experience- Jeff provides a list of all the native plants that we are planting, and I research each one and have maintained a journal of each day and information about the different plants.

Three Bridges park is an investment for Milwaukee and the community- volunteering allows one the opportunity to enhance that investment and watch it GROW."

With three sentences, John reminded me that engaging volunteers isn't just about getting "x" number of plants planted, or saving "x" amount of dollars through volunteer hours. Engaging volunteers is about creating community - it's about building relationships between people and the land, fostering opportunities to learn from one another, and hopefully, allowing us all to feel like we're a part of something bigger than ourselves.

John was not alone in this sentiment. I heard similar thoughts from other volunteers, as well as from groups that joined us to plant. One cool Saturday morning, the Marquette Biology Department brought almost forty individuals to help us get some planting done. Participants were undergraduate and graduate students, staff and faculty. I had the opportunity to chat with someone on staff and she shared with me what an amazing opportunity this was for all the different people in the department to interact with each other outside of the classroom and to learn about such a cool place down the road from campus. Here was yet another example of how this project exemplified community engagement.

Throughout this project, 112 volunteers worked for over 200 hours over the course of 25 days to plant 2,607 plants! But the impact of this project was greater than just these numbers - we also continued the work of building a community in Three Bridges Park.

My reaction to volunteers who give so much of their time and skill is often to express profuse gratitude. Something along the lines of, "Thank you so much for all the help you gave us...." I am starting to realize how this response reinforces volunteering as a one-way exchange of services - volunteers doing something for the Center in order to meet Center goals. I don't mean to say that we shouldn't show gratitude to our volunteers - they deserve so much appreciation - but I am working on shifting my message to reflect my growing understanding of volunteerism. Something more like, "Thank you so much for being a part of this community!"

We're looking forward to celebrating this tremendous community and all the volunteers that are a part of it on November 20th at our Annual Volunteer Appreciation Party. Hope to see all you wonderful volunteers there!

Erin Shawgo

Erin Shawgo

Erin Shawgo is the Community Health Evaluation Coordinator and Volunteer Coordinator at the Urban Ecology Center - Menomonee Valley Branch. 

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