There is a huge digital poster on one of the website pages for Swedesboro and it fills the screen with that iconic image of Uncle Sam, stern-faced and white-bearded, and dressed in red, white, and blue.
In the pose we’ve all seen, Uncle Sam is pointing directly at you, emphasizing the poster’s written message: “WE NEED YOU.” Not to join the military, not to buy war bonds, not to remember that “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” the Swedesboro Uncle Sam needs you to volunteer for something almost equally important.
It turns out the township or borough, or whatever municipality you call home, relies on willing volunteers to govern efficiently. You figured the elected officials did that, right? And of course, final decisions in administrative matters are voted upon by elected leaders.
But the varied concerns arising from efforts to govern and improve a community require input from that community and then, regularly, time and labor to implement those decisions. Somebody has to help set up Movie Night and someone has to show excited kids how to dance at Dancing in the Streets nights.
Even before that, volunteers on local boards or commissions or committees came up with the idea that it would be fun to dance in the dark in the middle of the street. A sub-committee of those volunteers made the arrangements and persuaded other volunteers from their business, sports, arts, friends and family connections to come help out.
This is what neighborly communities do and one of the most important goals stated by spokespersons of local municipalities is to foster this coming together.
Every municipality contacted had the same story: vacancies. “We have vacancies on our Land Use Board and we’re short members or two in some other committees,” claimed Celeste Keen, South Harrison’s municipal clerk.
“Political affiliation doesn’t matter and you don’t have to be a taxpayer (to be appointed to a board or committee); you just have to be a resident,” she said. “It’s hard to get volunteers, I’ll be honest,” she said.
Keen added that township fun activities are always in need of volunteers. “At every single one of our recreation events, we always welcome volunteers. We find them by word of mouth and the recreation commission reaches out for people whenever an event is planned.”
Jane DiBella, Woolwich Township’s administrator, made it clear the importance of volunteers. “We are in need of volunteers for our commissions and boards. We are always in need. Everybody is busy with jobs, kids, so we are constantly looking for volunteers.”
Willing workers are needed not just for positions on various municipal advisory boards or committees, which require a commitment of time and a desire to learn about specific facts and procedures. They are also needed for the lighter, more temporary occasions.
“Fun Day uses lots of volunteers, for example,” DiBella said. “It’s a huge effort. Volunteers put up and take down, whatever is needed.”
At Swedesboro, Municipal Clerk Tanya Goodwin cited vacancies in a number of boards and committees including the Board of Health, the Environmental Commission, and Parks and Recreation. “These are important,” Goodwin said. “Our committees are all important and they have vacancies.”
That concern was echoed by Councilwoman Diane Hale. “Like every town, Swedesboro definitely needs volunteers, not just in boards but there’s lots of little jobs that need to be done. You could donate an hour and I’d have something for you to do,” she said.
The need for volunteers on practically every level led Goodwin to begin an internship program for teens. It’s a sort of official learning class of two weeks in the summer that pays a stipend to five to seven kids, ages 14 to 18, to take on various chores and tours of government departments.
The teens are required, for example, to go to a borough meeting, to clean up at Lake Narraticon Park, meet with the lawyers and engineers. “The goal is to educate interns about local government and the need to get involved,” Goodwin said.
For the teens, the six-year-old program can be a great item on a resume for work or college, she added. “I had a business call me one day just to ask about an intern who was applying for a job.”
Even the library that serves the area has a need for volunteers, said Teresa Carlton, librarian at Swedesboro Library. “Most of our programs depend on volunteers.”
Other than an interest in your community and its governance, or in having a fun time on occasion, volunteers can be anyone, any age of adult. Some posts, like Parks and Recreation, might need volunteers able to walk the parks or lift and move plantings, but the criteria generally consist of making a commitment and attending the scheduled meetings.
For the community events, like parades or movies, volunteers don’t necessarily need to be adult, just capable of the work involved. Don’t worry. Someone will tell you what to do.
People volunteer for a number of reasons, but consistent with most is a desire to learn about the community and to be of help.
Teresa Carlton’s daughter, Shelby, likes volunteering so much she has twice been an intern, once at the library and again at Swedesboro’s program. “I think I was one of the first people in the program,” she recalled.
She was 16 then and found the internships valuable. “I learned the value of being on time and how much I liked working with kids,” Carlton said. “I put (the experience) on my resume and I think it helped a lot.” Carlton, who attends Rowan College of Gloucester County, is working at a daycare center as an assistant teacher.
Her internships were instructive, she said. “I like knowing things about our town and helping out and stuff. Everybody calls me old-fashioned because I like being in a small town and having old-fashioned values. And I’m interested in how government works and how I can contribute.”
Another intern, 16-year-old Colleen Mooney of Swedesboro, a junior at Kingsway High, has been tutoring children in the library literacy program since seventh grade. She also volunteered at Food Truck Thursdays last summer.
“I helped take down and pack up some of the games for the children,” she said. Mooney sought the volunteer spot. “I asked the librarian if she knew of any places to volunteer,” she said. “All these different activities the borough initiates, they bring so much joy to so many and I want to be a part of that.”
For Dr. Michele Blair, a chiropractor who resides in Woolwich, volunteering is almost a second job. She was a member of the Swedesboro-Woolwich Parks and Recreation board for 10 years and president for three.
“We were always on the lookout for new events and ways of connecting with the community,” she said.
While she left the board a year ago, she did not leave helping out. “Girl Scout leader, and Boy Scouts, Sunday School teacher, Board of Education at Kingsway School District, Martin Luther King Day, you name it, I’ve done it,” Dr. Blair chuckled.
With Councilwoman Hale, she also helped envision and plan the popular ‘Harry Potter Inspired Night’ for last year’s Halloween event in Swedesboro. Part of the planning involved discussions with lawyers for Warner Bros., an experience few local residents will have.
There is concern, Dr. Blair said, that Harry Potter will not return this year. “We’re unsure if we’ll get the volunteers.”
For Sue O’Donnell of Woolwich, the appeal of a position on municipal boards is knowledge, learning the inner workings of government at the most basic level and gathering the experience that confers. About five years ago she joined the Swedesboro-Woolwich Joint Land Use Board (JLUB) and has remained fascinated.
“My whole reason for volunteering is I come from corporate America and … learned a lot about it, but never about local government,” O’Donnell said. “I retired in 2010 and I always wanted to keep learning as I grow, and I was always sort of interested in local government. At JLUB, I could probably stay on for years and years and not know everything.”
O’Donnell is also on the township Business Economic and Advisory Committee. She said she is grateful for the chance to volunteer. “I’ve been very fortunate and I want to give back. I think it’s a privilege to be able to volunteer.”
BENEFITS OF VOLUNTEERING
The “privilege” of volunteering appears two-fold. Volunteers are pleased when the communities they represent are benefitted, but there are benefits directly to the volunteers, too.
O’Donnell, for instance, talked about meeting new people. “I’ve met some wonderful people and I’ve learned some interesting things. I wanted to go where I felt I had the least amount of knowledge, and then learn something new.”
Shelby Carlton expanded her volunteering and found satisfaction from it. “It was a good learning experience to see how government works,” she said about her internship in Swedesboro. “It made you think about how different departments worked and the jobs that had to be done. I had fun and learned a lot.”
Blair finds much to her benefit from being a volunteer. “I’ve formed many friendships and I love cementing a community together. Everybody needs to step out of their life for a fun day, for a sense of community. These events give people a reason to go out and get together. Everybody’s so busy, but we see (local events) make a difference.”
Colleen Mooney found tutoring children a valuable experience toward her goal as a teacher and discovered something about herself, as well. “I love volunteering,” she said.
Apparently that love can make the apparatus of local government go smoothly ‘round.
If you are interested in volunteering or in finding out more, explore the web page of your municipality or phone the main/administrative office and ask questions.
By Jean Redstone