by Pia K. Hansen

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Spokane, 54 "little brothers" and 45 "little sisters" are waiting to be matched with a volunteer role model from the community. At the Women's Drop-In Center on South Howard, one volunteer is needed to help design and maintain a Web page, and others to put on a monthly birthday party for the center's clients. At East Central Community Center, volunteers are needed to monitor the computer lab, so its hours can be extended outside of regular staff hours. Spokane Youth Sports Association always needs soccer coaches at the beginning of each season, and Habitat for Humanity is looking for help in its surplus store -- weekends and evenings included.

Civic engagement is at an all-time low in the United States. As two-income families are becoming the norm, and television and the Internet have taken over much of the need for social interaction and entertainment, less time is left for volunteering or spending time out in the neighborhood. Not only do volunteer-based organizations and nonprofits feel the pinch, but some social scientists say the lack of civic engagement is gnawing away at the social fabric of our communities.

In his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard professor of public policy Robert D. Putnam presents a strong analysis of why civic engagement is on a decline across the nation.

In the political realm, Putnam writes that an indicator of the lack of engagement is that only slightly more than 50 percent of eligible adults voted in the 2000 election. Putnam goes on to say that although it's not certain if voting causes community engagement or vice versa, there is some evidence that it encourages volunteering and what he calls "acts of good citizenship."

"So it's hardly a small matter for American democracy," he concludes, "when voting rates decline by 25 percent or more."

Yet Putnam maintains throughout his book that the history of civic engagement in the U.S. is a story of ups and downs. Rather than describing the civic movement as being at the end of its rope, he sees it at a low, but there is hope for an upswing -- especially if we face the problems now and begin doing something about it.

"This development is unlikely to turn around by itself," says Thomas Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar, Civic Engagement in America, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "It's easy to wring your hands and say America is going to hell in a handbasket, but 100 years ago it was just as bad. But back then, through the efforts of people, social institutions were invented that are still at work today. That's the direction we need to look in."

Putnam equates researching and documenting societal change with global warming. While it's impossible to point to one exclusive reason why the climate is changing, many indicators point in the direction that it is -- just like low electoral turnout is one indicator pointing in the direction of declining civic participation.

"Different people have different perceptions of why this is happening. We believe it's part of the disappearing of social capital," says Sander, who works closely with Putnam on research and social capital projects. "The act of voting is personal action, but it is also tied to a sense of civic duty -- of owing something to a larger system." But isn't the low turnout an indicator of a lost trust in government in general?

"It's true that some people have become skeptical about whether they can actually have input in the political process, but we think this is an indicator of frayed social capital," says Sander. "Some people think the drop relates to people's lost trust in government. But that wouldn't contribute to people not having dinner together or getting to know their neighbors or volunteering."

Very simply put, social capital is the intrinsic value of community ties and networks, as opposed to physical capital, which is money or the value of property and education.

"Social capital looks at the value in a network and the rules of trust and reciprocity that bind people together," says Sander. "It's a little like saying that people's Rolodex has more value than any degree they have."

And there is an added bonus to stockpiling high levels of social capital. "Social networks have a value to people both within the network and outside," says Sander. "In communities where there is a high level of social capital, there is less crime and less trouble in the schools."

So volunteerism benefits everyone in the community, regardless of whether they participate themselves -- a thought some have a hard time getting used to.

"In essence, yes, you can get a free ride," says Sander. "Let's say you are a couch potato and don't participate, but sit around and wait for everyone else to do the work, you still benefit from all the good the social capital helps create in your community."

Opportunities knock

The National Civic League's past Chairman Bill Bradley said American civilization is like a three-legged stool, with government and the private sector being two legs and the third being civil society, where people live, educate their kids, worship God and associate with their neighbors.

What's happening right now is that the third leg is growing shorter and shorter. Putnam spreads the blame of the decline of civic engagement roughly on the following factors: pressures of time and money (10 percent); suburbanization, longer commute times and sprawl (10 percent); electronic entertainment, above all TV (25 percent); and generational change -- the replacement of a generation that was very much civicly involved with its less involved children and grandchildren (50 percent).

As people get caught up in their own lives, many write off the possibility of volunteering anywhere for any cause altogether, saying they are too busy. Some are afraid of being suckered into doing more than they can. Others simply don't know how or where to start. But there are opportunities all over the place; you can volunteer for arts organizations, social service groups, athletic teams and in your neighborhood, where you can do anything from work at the local COPS shop to help out at the community center to pitch in on cleaning up your local park.

"People can always do more than they think they can," says Sue Nelson, mentor and volunteer coordinator for Mother Mentors, a program that hooks up single mothers with female mentors. "When I got into doing this, I could be like some other people who always seem to think, 'So-and-so should be doing that instead of me.' But sometimes you just need to get involved and do it yourself." Mother Mentors works with the female residents, who are often at least temporarily homeless, at St. Margaret's Shelter, which is full to capacity housing 18 single mothers and their families.

"We have about eight mentors right now, and we can always use more," says Nelson. "We like to match the 18 women with a mentor before they go back out in the community. It's only one to two hours a week, but we ask for a one-year commitment."

If a one-year commitment and several hours of work a week is too much, Nelson says they'll try and find a way of accommodating a volunteer's schedule.

"We always need clerical help, and we need caregivers who can come in when we need it and take care of one of the families, if mom needs to do classes or service work or maybe just a break," she explains. "And the donation room is always looking for help, too."

At the Peace and Justice Action League (PJALS), things are going quite well, but Director Rusty Nelson still thinks the progressive grassroots support group should have more members.

"When I first got on staff, I thought we could easily reach 1,000 members. But we only have about 500 membership units, that's households or groups and churches that maintain membership," he explains. "A head count would be something under 700. I'll always think that's low, but some people who consider themselves progressive are suspicious about the groups. Still, there should be 5,000-6,000 members when you look at the size of the population." Nelson and his wife Nancy are the only part-time paid employees in the office, which is staffed by a steady group of volunteers on some days.

PJALS has been a membership organization since 1983, and besides supporting other grassroots groups in the area, it brings in speakers or holds demonstrations. The organization also takes on bigger projects now and then.

"We are getting ready to hire someone to work on the living wage issue with us," says Nelson. "We are more of a platform for people who want to do citizen action; they know what they want to do when they come in here, they just need support."

Though he'd like to see the membership list grow, he doesn't get anxious when people leave.

"We lose members all the time," he says. "Sometimes people leave because they joined for a specific cause, which is not a cause anymore. Or they leave Spokane for Seattle, San Francisco or Chicago or someplace like that. Often they are not the kinds of people who stay here all their lives."

At the Women's Drop-In Center volunteers are in demand, too, yet some are turned away.

"We have great volunteers, some of which have been here for as much as eight years," says Francesca Cameron, M.S.W., volunteer coordinator and GED instructor. "But we are only open during regular work hours, so there's a lot of people we have to turn away because the schedules don't match." Cameron says her program benefits a lot from students doing work training or service learning, but cautions against relying too heavily on this type of volunteer.

"They do absolutely great work, but we don't want to end up becoming a goldfish bowl," she says. "We are sort of in a unique situation because the women who come here are seeking support, so we want for them to be able to develop some trust. That's hard if volunteers come and go a lot."

Heather Hendrickson-Jackson works at the East Central Community Center where she coordinates volunteers -- among other things -- for the computer lab. She says there is more of a flow of volunteers through that facility, and keeping up with the need can be difficult.

"I'd have to say it's hard finding new volunteers," she says. "I mean, people would really like to, but they have so many other obligations. Some of the volunteers begin while they are unemployed, but then they get a job -- and while we are happy for that, we are also sad that we are losing their help."

Where the older generation used to carry the brunt of volunteerism, there seems to be a shift in the age groups who volunteer today. At Mother Mentors, they see mostly retired people or high school and college students, a development that's mirrored across the board at many volunteer organizations.

"The pattern of volunteering per generation looks like a check mark," says Sander. "The people most involved are the oldest, those over 55, what Putnam refers to as the 'long civic generation.' They have always been way more civicly engaged than the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers. They have voted more, done more, given blood more." He agrees that some of the mandatory volunteering that is required in school or on college applications is helping to get younger people involved.

"Generation X volunteers a little bit more -- but some is mandatory volunteering, so it's unclear how much comes from the heart," says Sander. "But there is good evidence that people gain from that, even if they are forced to participate. People who volunteer at a young age are more likely to stick with it."

Yet the generational gap is what's going to hurt civic engagement even more, a decade down the road.

"I don't mean to be a pessimist about it, but if you ask a lot of organizations in Spokane, they'll tell you that many of the volunteers are older people," he says. "We are depending far more on the 55-year-olds, and I hope we can keep them alive for a long time to come. We are going to pay the price for the younger generations not being involved. Even with what they do today, the Generation Xers are still way below what the older generation has been doing."

To a better community

Regardless of how hard it is, most local volunteer groups are pretty successful. Habitat for Humanity -- a volunteer organization that builds low-income housing -- often finds its Saturday construction days booked way in advance.

"Sometimes people come in a group from work or church, and it's very appealing for them to work on the sites," says Executive Director Michone Preston. "We have between six and 10 homes under construction at a time. We've been in Spokane for 13 years, and we have built 85 houses in that time."

Regardless of the waiting list, Big Brothers Big Sisters takes care of many more children per resident than its sister agencies in King and Pierce counties.

"I think Spokane is a great volunteer town. The community really rallies around the causes here," says Christine Silver, the program's director. "We ask for only three to four hours a week, for the traditional program, and we also have a school mentoring program which only requires one hour per week. The rewards are great, both for children and volunteers."

And it's these rewards that Americans need to reconnect with. To help in that process and to get people fired up in general about civic participation, the Citizens League of Greater Spokane has invited the president of the National Civic League, Christopher Gates, to come to Spokane on Thursday, May 24.

He holds great hope for the future uprising of volunteerism.

"Our experience tells us people are more willing to get involved in nonprofit organizations and church than they are to run for government positions, either locally or nationally," says Gates, who is also the founding chairman of the Colorado Institute for Leadership Training in Denver. "Political participation is low, but I think volunteering is up. And what that's saying is people are being careful with their time, making rational, careful choices about what they want to do with it.

"What we need to do is to reinvigorate the spirit of citizenship. With citizenship comes rights, and with rights come responsibilities. People are angry at the political process, but they are not afraid to get involved locally," says Gates. "And local participation happens in very natural ways. In some communities, people are very eager to get involved in neighborhoods, and in others its schools or church, or a business adopting playgrounds. There is no one way that's right for every community."

Still, as much as some would like to hasten the process, there's no way to force people to reengage, says Gates.

"Change comes from the grassroots and up," he explains. "Social change starts in hearts or minds; we are not going to fix this with a bill out of Washington."

Sander agrees: To change the decline of social capital and bridge the generational gap, one must appeal to the individual. "It's the accumulative impact of how people choose to spend Tuesday night that hurts us. If more were aware of the value of social capital, they'd see it is more important to go meet with their friends or have dinner together than to watch TV," he says.

"What options are available on Tuesday night? It's important to belong to that skateboard group. Americans don't think enough about the negative aspect of them not participating."

Christopher Gates is the keynote speaker at the Citizens League of Greater

Spokane's annual meeting luncheon at 11:30 am, Thursday, May 24, at the WestCoast Grand Hotel's Skyline Room. Tickets: $25. Call: 326-1129.

Source for statistics in this section: Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & amp; Schuster).

Volunteering in the 21st Century

Cut the meetings

People are generally tired of meetings. Find other ways of getting together, for instance, on the Internet or via e-mail lists. If you must hold meetings, meet in interesting places -- maybe at an art gallery, outdoors or at a new, local hangout.

Do Something

Most groups we talked to agree that specific projects get better response than vague statements like, "We'll do something for the community." Nothing motivates people like a sense of accomplishment. Habitat for Humanity is a success because people like to pound nails and they feel good about creating something with their own sweat. Sometimes groups may need smaller projects to mix in with bigger ones so that a sense of accomplishment can continue. Nothing will get a volunteer to quit faster than feeling like nothing ever happens.

Be flexible

Make different types of volunteer work available. One person is great with a hammer and nails, another is great on the computer and a third may have excellent phone skills. Be very clear about exactly which skills and how much time each volunteer job demands. But even if someone with specialized skills wants to join, create a job for them. That will keep them engaged, and they will also be likely to get involved in other areas of the organization, too.

Make it fun

A big part of the impulse to get involved is to be social -- to meet people and make new friends. So any group must mix some social fun in with the day-to-day work. Cleanup days, for example, not only give people a feeling of accomplishment, as mentioned above, but they can also be social events. Meetings, as already mentioned, should be fun and can be held in unique places. The Citizens League offers a series of sessions where people can join for coffee and talk about an issue of current interest. Greater Spokane holds its meetings as informal after-work get-togethers with microbrews after the official business is concluded. Social events are also a great way to keep in touch with volunteers -- lack of communication can always lead to volunteers drifting away.

Never quit

Whatever project or group you begin, stick to it. Don't be disappointed if a lot of people show up for the first meeting, but only a core group makes it to the next one. Get the word out about what your group is doing, and keep in mind that there is an ebb and flow to volunteering. If your mission is important enough, and you are dedicated enough, people will follow you down the path to community enrichment.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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