Adversity often brings out the best in people. We find ways to pitch in and solve problems that government can’t.
Since the recession began, non-profit organizations have seen a big increase in volunteerism, and as state and local governments are forced to slash public services, volunteers are coming forward to pick up the slack.
For example, after the City of Las Vegas laid off half of its park maintenance staff, neighbors put together volunteer work crews to pick up trash, wash picnic benches, trim shrubs and paint the curbs.
The City of Oakdale, Calif., near Modesto, has a new volunteer program called CIVICS — Citizens Volunteering in City Services. CIVICS’ roster of 150 volunteers helps to maintain city services that would otherwise be cut in the wake of a 20 percent reduction in the city workforce.
In communities from Anchorage to Atlanta, volunteers are picking up the slack, helping to fill gaps in public services.
But if history is any guide, some government agencies don’t appreciate such community spirit.
Take Amtrak, for example.
The online magazine Crosscut recently featured an article about a group of citizens in the Olympia-Lacey area who, seeing a need for a train station, built and operate their own Amtrak station with no help from the federal government or Amtrak.
The story began 25 years ago, when train travelers grew frustrated with the three-sided lean-to that served as the East Olympia Amtrak station. One patron noted, “The potholes in the parking lot would sometimes be a foot deep — no restrooms, no nothing. It would have made maybe a half-way decent farm stand.” The station was next to a gated crossing and several people had been hit and killed by passing trains. Because it was unstaffed, Amtrak wouldn’t allow women travelling alone to get off there after dark.
The tipping point came one night in 1986 when a Los Angeles-to-Seattle Amtrak train dropped off a wheelchair-bound man at the East Olympia shack. No one was there, the vandalized phones weren’t working, and he spent the entire night stranded.
Thurston County officials, frustrated at Amtrak’s inaction, formed the nonprofit Amtrak Depot Committee to solicit donations for a new station.
Thurston County donated a highway maintenance depot and a local farmer contributed five acres of land. Individual donors bought 2,500 commemorative paving bricks for $35 to $50 apiece while large business donations were acknowledged with marble plaques. An architect contributed the design and local contractors, working alongside volunteers, donated time and materials to build the station.
Centennial Station opened in 1993, and both the station and the adjoining park-and-ride cost between $600,000 and $1 million (compared to an $18 million budget for the new Sounder-Amtrak station in Tukwila). The station boosted Amtrak ridership in and out of Olympia, adding an untold amount of money to Amtrak’s coffers.
Amtrak did not contribute to the Centennial Station effort and today Amtrak’s literature lists the station as “unstaffed,” giving travelers the impression there’s no help available there.
In reality, the station is staffed entirely by volunteers, 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. That saves Amtrak about $150,000 a year, according to Rich DeGarmo, a retired pharmacist who supervises the 60 volunteers who operate Centennial Station.
The selflessness and determination demonstrated by these volunteers serves as an example for us all. For example, millions of retiring baby boomers could put their lifetimes of experience and skills to work as volunteers, enriching communities across the nation.
Instead of complaining about problems, they — and we — should set about solving them with our time, skills and elbow grease.
Isn’t that what America is all about?