America's Volunteers: Partners Public in Service

By Lane, Peter | Nation's Cities Weekly, April 24, 1995 | Go to article overview

America's Volunteers: Partners Public in Service


Lane, Peter, Nation's Cities Weekly


Volunteers have always played an important role in local governments by serving on task forces, overseeing recreation programs, staffing libraries, and a host of other activities. With mounting fiscal pressures and increased demands for services, city officials are taking a renewed interest in how to involve citizens in local government operations. Many are establishing volunteer programs that fill gaps in service or allow the city to expand a successful program without significant cost to the taxpayers.

Beyond the millions of dollars in donated services, volunteer programs also deliver an unexpected fringe benefit: a more involved and informed citizenry. Rather than throwing up their hands in disgust at government, citizens are rolling up their sleeves and pitching in to address a variety of community challenges, such as public safety, homelessness, AIDS prevention, and the health and well-being of children.

"Volunteers have donated their time and talents to Virginia Beach since the late 1970s," said Mayor Meyera Oberndorf. "These dedicated citizens are our partners in public service. Last year, nearly 7,000 volunteers donated more than a million hours of service. They are a tremendous asset to city operations and their community spirit and commitment is a benefit to the entire community."

Many cities report a significant dollar value of donated time from volunteers. For example, last year volunteers in Virginia Beach contributed approximately $13 million worth of services while working in 33 of the city's departments.

"Citizens who volunteer allow Virginia Beach to provide many services that it otherwise wouldn't be able to provide," said Mary Russo, who, as a volunteer herself, serves as the city's volunteer coordinator. Virginia Beach volunteers serve as judicial information clerks in the circuit court, nutritionists in the health department, probation aides with the juvenile court, family counselors at a child service center, social workers, and in many other roles.

City officials in Fairfield, Ohio, a 40,000-resident community just north of Cincinnati, established a volunteer program last August. "We knew volunteers could help provide services in a number of areas, " said Dennis Stuckey, assistant city manager. "And we thought a city-wide volunteer program would also be a good way to help establish a better community identity."

Peggy Sullivan, Fairfield's volunteer coordinator, believes that developing volunteer positions promotes creativity because city staff are encouraged to look beyond the traditional jobs that volunteers perform. For example, citizens are now scheduled to listen for the 8 warning sirens that are tested regularly throughout the city and report to the police dispatcher whether or not they are working. The volunteers ensure that the warning system is in good working order and allow eight patrol cars and officer's, who otherwise would have performed this reporting function, to be available for other duties. …

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