Volunteers helping out during last year’s Mohawk Valley Garlic & Herb Festival.

by Dave Warner

One of the things that any community faces when it comes to volunteering, is the constant change in the group of volunteers that participate. They age, die, or wear out after doing it for decades…it’s a fact of life.

Nationally, the amount of work that volunteers do is impressive:

  • In 2018 – 77.34 million adults (30.3%) volunteered through an organization.
  • Americans volunteered 6.9 billion hours, worth an estimated $167 billion in economic value
  • Across all categories in the study, volunteers engage in their communities at higher rates than non-volunteers. They talk to neighbors more frequently, participate in civic organizations, fix things in the community, attend public meetings, discuss local issues with family and friends, do favors for neighbors, and vote in local elections.
  • Parents volunteer at rates nearly 48% higher than non-parents
  • Working mothers give more time than any other demographic with a volunteer rate of 46.7%

However, New York State is almost at the bottom of the list, coming in 48th out of 50 when it comes to volunteers.

In Little Falls, we are blessed with a strong group of volunteers, but we’re facing a shortage in several areas, and new volunteers are needed.

Many people are not aware that a lot of the things that happen in this City, happen because of the dedication of those volunteers. Everything from the City’s tourism committee, to cleaning up Main Street, having a fantastic Cheese Festival, or a multi-day event like Canal Celebration, are all dependent on volunteers.

The success of those committees, and events, is directly tied to the number, amount of hours, and dedication that those volunteers provide.

Some of these organizations are facing critical shortages of volunteers, and the issue has been discussed for more than a year by different groups and individuals about how to deal with this shortage.

That’s where the Little Falls Volunteer Corps plans to pick up the reins. To quote Jordyan Mueller, who is organizing the effort, “The goal is to build a local culture of volunteerism by bringing people and organizations together based on shared interests. To do this, the Little Falls Volunteer Corps seeks to create pathways for local residents to find the organizations that inspire them to act, AND to offer support to local organizations in cultivating sustainable volunteer participation.”

Mueller is no stranger to the difficulties in gathering up volunteers, as she works for a state-wide AmeriCorps program that recruits and places volunteer service members in schools and communities to provide free mediation/conflict resolution services to youth and families.

She stated, “Volunteering is literally my life. I have an intimate understanding of the challenges organizations have in recruiting and retaining volunteers. I also know that to attract reliable and committed volunteers often requires building a culture and community around what it means to volunteer.”

To gather data about the Little Falls community, Mueller created a survey, which she is encouraging everyone to take. “It’s for anyone that is even remotely interested in being involved.”

Mueller also tries to think about the challenges that volunteers and organizations face. “How do they get their needs met, and then the organizations that host them. I’m always thinking about that professionally.”

She moved back to Little Falls in 2016 and knew that she wanted to get more involved in the community by volunteering and being more active. “I saw that there was a hunger and a need for people that had the drive to get things done.”

Mueller saw a gap that was expanding when it came to volunteering. “It just got me thinking about how we could broaden that base of support for those organizations that need volunteers and at the same time, meet the needs of people who want to volunteer.”

She spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant to be involved locally, not just for herself, but for others. “What do I want to be able to do locally? And I thought, if I’m asking these questions of myself, I bet that others are as well.”

After a lot of reflection, and being very curious about what motivates volunteers, how they think about it and what it might mean to them, she wanted to come up with a survey to help her gather those answers. “I wanted to know what people were thinking and what they were looking for.”

“So far, the survey has been incredibly insightful. A lot of people make assumptions about why people are doing things or not, without really having the full story,” she said. “This could just be something that helps everyone. Individual volunteers, to organizations and non-profits.”

Photo by Dave Warner – Ann Tomei helps out during last year’s Cheese Festival.

Mueller feels like the data from the survey becomes part of a feedback loop, that would allow organizations to be more responsive to not just the community, but the needs of the volunteers.

According to her, the Little Falls Volunteer Corps is something that is still evolving and taking shape. “It’s still coming together, but already, I’ve figured out that people are looking for access to information from the initial survey results. They want to know about volunteer opportunities, and that is huge. That is step one,” Mueller said.

Once the survey is completed, she intends to share the results with organizations and the community at large. “I think it will be valuable for individual residents to be able to look at the results and feel more connected to each other…to build relationships and believe that they’re doing something important for not only their families but the whole community.”

Mueller believes that in order to continue to build this culture of volunteerism in Little Falls, people who volunteer need to be recognized, and the community needs to be able to identify who they are as well.

“The thank-you event we are planning at the end of each year will do just that. Acknowledge and appreciate and give thanks to everyone who puts in a ton of time and labor for nothing to make this City great. It’s just a way to thank all the volunteers for their hard work.”

Mueller is also putting together what she calls ‘volunteer survival kits’ that would be handed out to people helping at an event. “Maybe a tote bag with a water bottle and some hand sanitizer and maybe a notepad. It’s a token of appreciation, but it’s also really useful.”

If it becomes really successful, Mueller wants to see people walking around with the Little Falls Volunteer Corp tote bags, stickers, or bumper stickers. “Maybe we’ll have monthly pizza parties where we just get together with this esprit de corps where we love our community and we love what we’re doing and we’re really bonded through that.”

The Little Falls Volunteer Corps is coordinating a general meeting on March 4, 2020, at 6:30 pm at the Community Center for anyone interested in volunteering for Canal Celebration. The meeting is intended to help generate new ideas for the event and to also build a wider volunteer pool.

You can find out more by visiting the group’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/LFVolunteerCorps/ or you can email lfvolunteercorps@gmail.com.