Volunteer service unites communities

  • By Adam Cornell
  • Friday, April 15, 2005 9:00pm
  • Opinion

A great flood came to Snohomish County in December of 1975. Water covered approximately 53,000 acres, and 386 homes were damaged or completely destroyed. Describing the scene, one local journalist wrote that the Snohomish Valley had been transformed into “a huge lake 10 miles long and up to two miles wide.” Some 1,500 cattle perished, roads and dikes were obliterated, and hundreds of residents were displaced from their homes.

Individuals and organizations rallied to render aid, offered financial support and volunteered to assist in the massive cleanup effort after the waters receded. National Guard troops were mobilized and the Red Cross reached out. Local organizations also sprang into action as churches and civic groups collected clothing, food and other essential items for flood victims. A local business offered to clean damaged furniture. We were a community obliged to help one another.

Lack of water is our latest crisis. Gov. Christine Gregiore has authorized the mobilization of up to 500 members of our National Guard to fight the expected increase in wildfires as a result of the drought. Three-thousand National Guard troops have already been called up to serve in Iraq, the largest deployment since World War II.

Anticipating the impact on farmers, the governor and the Legislature have secured funding for the purchase of water and extra dollars to improve wells. Should this drought impact us as expected, we will again unite.

We meet our obligation to help one another in times of visible crisis, but many retreat after the obvious threat has subsided. Why? It is undoubtedly because these volunteers no longer think they are needed to serve their community. They are wrong.

Seemingly imperceptible crises face our community every day. A local family faces hunger and homelessness; a young person is alienated from his classmates because he cannot read; an elderly person is alone without help to fulfill basic needs.

Today, the pressures on children, families and other vulnerable populations are even greater. For instance, when National Guard members are sent to Iraq or to Eastern Washington to fight a wildfire, they are not only forced to abandon their family, but face lost income. Coupled with existing cutbacks to essential state programs, this National Guard family is on even shakier ground.

Other families are facing similar challenges as a result of lost jobs, rising health care costs and more expensive child care, not to mention the potential impact of the drought on family farmers. These daily challenges threaten the health of our community even though they are less visible than a flood or a drought. We all have an obligation to support those in need by engaging in national or community service.

With the approach of National Volunteer Week (April 18-24), let us also recognize those people who honor the obligation to serve. Bravo to the 20 AmeriCorps members who serve within Snohomish County organizations who are teaching children to read, cleaning up the environment and working with our elderly population. Bravo to the volunteer attorneys at Snohomish County Legal Services who protect the rights of those who cannot afford representation. Bravo to all who coach or tutor someone in our community.

Though many in Snohomish County serve, we can do better. One challenge is to help people understand the social cost of not getting involved. For example, a recent study revealed that a typical high school dropout will cost taxpayers upwards of $388,000 over the course of their lifetime. Dollars are not all that are lost. We are all weakened when someone fails.

Another, perhaps more important, challenge is to ensure that young people are exposed to the value and importance of volunteer and civic engagement.

We teach our children about the American Revolution and the civil rights movement, but we do not require them to act in a manner consistent with the values that both gave birth to our country and protected rights that have sustained us. Where would our country be without the volunteer revolutionary army or those who passionately advocated for social justice in the 1960s?

Volunteer and community service should be a graduation requirement for every high school senior. Although all seniors by 2007 must complete a “major project,” the state should formalize the obligation that the projects be service-related, including a dedicated curriculum related to civic engagement.

The notion that volunteer service unites and sustains us as a community is hardly a revelation. Floods remind us. Droughts remind us. Let us also be reminded by the significant daily challenges facing our community. Grasping this idea and thus embracing our obligation to one another will make us stronger every day – not just when the waters rise and fall.

Adam Cornell of Edmonds is vice chair of the Washington Commission on National and Community Service.

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