ELEGY FOR VOLUNTEERISM - Is There Hope For Shrinking Communities?


OPINION AND COMMENT by Bob Weaver 2006

This is a brief tribute to those who give their time and talents to helping others, a number that is rapidly declining in Calhoun County.

It's also an alarm about declining volunteerism.

It's not just here, it's all over the USA. Rural communities like Calhoun with small populations can barely afford the trend.

The trend shows a dwindling of volunteers for fire departments, outreach programs, civic organizations and community festivals.

West Virginia ranks near the bottom with its "social capital" (42 of 49 states), according to an ongoing research project started in 1975.

The study looked at the failure of citizens to engage their communities each year, not attending a public meeting, not belonging or participating to a civic organization, not volunteering time, not serving in a non-paid capacity to help an organization, and not voting.

The engagement of citizens in a political party has diminished to an embarrassing level, and fewer and fewer registered voters are taking time to cast their ballots. Many eligible voters are not bothering to register.

Three-hundred less Calhoun people voted in the 2006 off-year election, compared to four years ago. About one-third of the county's registered voters cast their ballots, a dismal showing.

"Churches tend to be declining, various service organizations, civic clubs are declining, PTAs, PTOs, and when those decline, by and large, you find that the quality of life begins to drop off," according to Dr. Vaughn Grisham, a leader in community development.

Grisham was one of three keynote speakers who was part of a statewide conference on volunteerism, recently held in Charleston.

He says Americans are less likely to step up to volunteer and are shrinking away from community organizations and involvement.

"What you will find all over the United States, by and large, fewer and fewer people are becoming engaged. They're not working together in the way in which they once did."

Someone else will do the job.

"The reasons behind it, in part, seems to be that people have drawn into their lives, through television, through their own work," and it is having a major impact on our society, Grisham said.

"When people quit volunteering and quit getting involved in these projects, democracy will not work."

Here in Calhoun, civic groups have become practically non-existent. The Grantsville Lions Club, an organization that has provided immeasurable help to the community, is desperately dwindling in numbers.

A core of aging and devoted volunteers tend to withdraw from their volunteerism, leaving few replacements.

People no longer take an active interest in their children's public education, showing up on rare occasions when hot button issues surface, issues generally linked to sports or hirings.

Robert D. Putnam, author of a best-selling book "Bowling Alone," says people are drawing away from their communities, cocooning in their houses and rarely socializing.

Putnam, using a vast amount of research materials, says we are becoming increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures.

Putnam warns that "our stock of social capital - the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities."

After conducting 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century, Putnam says we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.

"We're even bowling alone," he said. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women's roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

Most Calhoun citizens who have children, drive long distances to work and return to the county late in the evening with little energy to spare. The exorbitant cost of gasoline and energy has added an extra amount of stress, causing families to work more jobs or more hours to make ends meet.

They have a viable reason for their lack of volunteerism.

Putnam still believes that America could re-invent itself, and the age of community involvement could get better.

However, the de-construction of community life - merging, centralizing, consolidating - moving government, education and services toward more centralized control (globalizing) does not lend itself to keeping communities in tact and maintaining a quality of life.

Community life requires people to be connected and rooted, willing to give something to others.

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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