Being part of a community is a two-way street




Giving is better than getting. And the most rewarding things in our lives are delivered when we give of ourselves free of charge. The things you do for free -- of your own free will -- tell the most about your character.

Many of the programs and institutions we rely on depend on volunteers -- and many are in trouble today because those volunteers are getting old and younger generations are not stepping up.

From snowmobile clubs to fire departments, the lack of volunteers has become a serious problem.

Let's use Mount Vernon as an example, a typical small town with a bushel full of wonderful volunteers committed to their community. These are the most generous and caring people I know. But we're running out of them.

This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Mount Vernon Rescue Service. Several members have served the entire time, an incredible contribution to our community. But no new members have been recruited in seven years, and we may go the way of neighboring Readfield which shut down its rescue service a few years ago.

Mount Vernon's Fire Department suffers the same problem and is currently trying hard to recruit what it calls "a few good men and women to join us and give a little bit back to this wonderful community we call Mount Vernon."

The department's letter makes these jobs sound enticing: only two meetings a month, good training, and the chance to serve in an atmosphere of "camaraderie and mutual trust." Sometimes it's even fun, they say.

This year there's a sense of unease about the fire department. For the first time in my memory, townspeople -- led by the Board of Selectmen -- voted down an article to buy a new fire truck. A dwindling numbers of recruits is causing anxiety and concern. Costs are rising, equipment is wearing out, and more and more often, the department depends on donations to maintain the legally-required level of training and equipment.

This Saturday, for example, the Fire Department's annual rummage sale will draw people from far and wide to the town office where the grounds and basement will be heaped with good stuff. As soon as this column is written I've got to get into the attic and dig out some items to donate. This annual sale is always my motivator to clean out some of my own good stuff and move it to someone else's attic -- and to buy someone else's good stuff and move it to my house.

The fact that a fire and rescue service has to depend on rummage sales to keep up with expenses tells you where we're probably going in the future. But these folks are determined and devoted, and I'm betting on them to find a way to maintain this critically important local service. It's comforting to know that in a medical or other emergency, trained and capable professional help is only minutes away.

In every Maine town, the need for volunteers is acute. You -- yes you -- are needed. And this writer simply won't believe that you don't have time to contribute more to your community.

Personally, I have found great satisfaction in my past service as a Mount Vernon Selectman and member of the Planning Board. Currently I'm serving on the town's Comprehensive Planning Committee, a very interesting and challenging task. And I continue my favorite task as a trustee of the Dr. Shaw Memorial Library -- the best small town library in the state, if you ask me.

Yet I know I could -- with some disciplined examination of what I do with my time -- contribute more to my community. I may not have the time or interest to join the Fire Department -- although I'm thinking about it -- but perhaps you do. And if it's not the Fire Department that needs help in your town, there are certainly other projects and organizations that need your help desperately.

An honest assessment might tell you that you also desperately need them, for who among us would reject the chance for the personal rewards and satisfaction of serving our friends and neighbors?

Here's my suggestion. Make a list of all the television shows you watch each week. Cut out half of them. Volunteer that time to a local project or organization. I guarantee that the personal satisfaction you receive from volunteering will far exceed anything you get from those television shows.

George Smith is the executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. He lives in Mount Vernon.