Back in the late 1970s, Acton-Boxborough Community Education in Acton, Massachusetts ran a fair for several years called A-B Jamboree. The theme of A-B Jamboree was "the spirit of volunteerism"--everything at the fair was run by volunteers and it was all free to the public. But A-B Jamboree stopped running because of...a lack of volunteers, at least people who had both the experience and skills, plus the time and energy, to put a tremendous amount of work into running an event without pay or other concrete reward.

I've been thinking a lot about volunteerism lately; about why we volunteer, what we gain from it, or hope to gain, why volunteers burn out and how to prevent that...all those sorts of questions. I tend to feel frustrated with my own experiences volunteering, and yet I can't seem to stop. Aside from simply wanting an event or a cause or a group to do well, I volunteer hoping to make friends or gain some creds as a go-to person for things I'm good at doing. I'm always disappointed. But I keep right on pitching in.

I volunteer for science-fiction conventions a lot, and in New England there's considerable overlap among the communities of people who volunteer for the various conventions. I've been circulating among half a dozen of them for years--I'm about to start working with another one now that I haven't volunteered on before. I'm going to see where it goes.

Towns, like conventions, need volunteers to thrive. Unlike my science-fiction conventions, Winchendon has paid employees. But the town can't possibly pay enough people to do everything needed to run a small municipality. The Board of Selectmen, the Finance Committee, the School Committee, are all volunteers. There are 24 Committees or Boards on the Town website, all of which have at least five members, all of them volunteers. And then there are volunteers at the schools and volunteers at the CAC, volunteers at all the churches, volunteers working on HEAL Winchendon, volunteers who work on Solstice Fair and Fall Fest, with the American Legion, leading Scout troops.

The town couldn't run without them, and yet there are never enough. Quite some time ago, I realized that many people simply can't afford to volunteer the way they once did. Everyone is working too hard. A lot of Winchendon's volunteers--and bless them, every one of them--are taking on multiple roles. Many of them are retired, and busier than they ever were when they drew a paycheck.

But the pitfall to the same people volunteering for the same things for a long time is that new folks sometimes have trouble feeling as though they're welcome or have anything to offer. This is especially true when so many volunteers are retirees and the aspiring new folks are young adults with very different expectations. The young adults may want everyone to add their preferred pronouns after their names, and talk about bringing more diversity to the team, and communicate via text messages or Discord instead of holding meetings.

The convention I just signed up to volunteer for sent out a long list of open jobs to an email list of several hundred people. They got back four responses. I was reminded of the list of Winchendon town committee vacancies I've been running in the Courier for months. Will we ever get a Fence Viewer and Field Driver, do you think?

Eleven people applied for the Town Manager Search Committee, but that is a short-term commitment. The town is now looking for people to serve on the new Master Plan Implementation Committee. A lot of things are changing in Toy Town. If we want all our residents to be invested in the community, they need to feel represented by the town committees and Boards. We need to help the new voices, the younger generations, the diverse members of our community, really feel that their participation is welcome and valued. Recruiting and keeping volunteers is a whole skill set in itself.

Volunteering shouldn't feel like a one-way relationship--we all want to be appreciated. As COVID restrictions slowly ease, suddenly we're going to be needed for a lot of things, and they won't all be happening on Zoom. It's not too soon to start making plans to answer the call.

Inanna Arthen