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Volunteer Vitality: Valley volunteers give back

This article first appeared as the cover story in the January 2023 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication


By Bruce Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief


THE SPIRIT of volunteerism appears to be alive and well in the Farmington Valley. This seems clear from anecdotal observation as well as the stories told by local nonprofits and organizations.

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If money makes the world go round and if time is money, let’s consider volunteering in light of these two popular sayings — since volunteers give of their time and their invaluable talents, we can apply the transitive property and reasonably conclude the following: Volunteers make the world go round.


Yet if you beg to differ, we can surely agree that volunteers help make their communities a better place all around the world. An abundance of Valley residents seek to give back and pay it forward by volunteering for numerous nonprofits and organizations.


The December 2022 edition of Today Magazine featured one such Valley volunteer. World War II veteran George Wesley England, who died at 98 years old the day before Thanksgiving, served his community throughout his lifetime via 10 or more organizations. The Avon-Canton Rotary Club honored the longtime Avon resident as Citizen of the Year for his volunteer service.


In the January 2023 edition of Today, we spotlight a Granby resident named Dave Roberts whose volunteer and service resumé includes an amazing 50-plus organizations, agencies and nonprofits — see our sidebar story for details.


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• Related Story — For Dave Roberts, Volunteering Is Like Breathing

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These two individuals are examples of extreme volunteerism, but you don’t have to win an award or be a WWII hero to make a difference in your community.


A proverbial random act of kindness can go a long way toward brightening a neighbor’s day — and even saving a stranger’s life. Canton resident Wendy Rosenberg, a contributing photographer for Today Magazine, shares one such story.


Wendy and her husband Jeffrey frequent Nepaug Reservoir, walking the trail that starts in Collinsville and goes over the top of the historic Nepaug Dam into New Hartford, where there are stunning views of the reservoir to the southwest — and a precipitous drop on the other side where a spillway plunges 100-plus feet and becomes the Nepaug River again.


As they traversed the dam one day toward sunset this past autumn, Wendy saw a woman sitting alongside the trail, near the 100-foot gorge, and noticed that her shoulders were heaving and shaking, as if she were silently sobbing. Wendy cared enough to approach the woman — and indeed she was weeping — and asked her what was wrong.


The woman proceeded to share a heartrending story about some family trauma she was enduring, and after a brief conversation, the newly heartened woman made a stunning statement: She said that if Wendy hadn’t stopped and spoken with her and extended kindness, she was planning to jump off the dam after nightfall and end her life.

Volunteers keep the Weekend Food Backpack program humming at Avon-based Gifts of Love in a warmer season — and of course helpers are needed during every season of the year — courtesy photo

This profound anecdote isn’t technically an example of volunteering — yet it embodies the volunteer spirit of reaching out and caring for neighbors and showing compassion in a sometimes bleak world that can test even the most optimistic person to the limits.


By the way, Wendy counseled the woman to seek formal help, and they traded phone numbers and later exchanged text messages for follow-up encouragement. Further, Wendy’s small act of kindness was an overflow gesture dovetailing with her volunteer work through the years. A retired nurse, she has given her time and ear to nursing-home residents and patients with medical challenges and youth facing burdensome emotional situations.


“I was bullied as a child,” she says, “so I feel I can relate to many youngsters. … I have had a passion for helping people since I was a young child. People have to have passions to keep them going.”


For our volunteer coverage in this edition, Today Magazine has sought comment from a number of managers of nonprofits, organizations and agencies in the five core Farmington Valley towns — Avon, Canton, Farmington, Granby and Simsbury — and we asked the following two questions:


1. How essential are volunteers for your organization to operate effectively — and what are some vital volunteer roles people fulfill for your organization?


2. In your experience and observation, what benefits do volunteers derive from volunteering?


• Comments are listed in alphabetical order by last name


Deb Bibbins

Founder — For All Ages

1 — Volunteers are the heart and soul of For All Ages! We would not be able to offer our programs and events without the dozens of volunteers who generously donate their time and talent each year. And our volunteer board of directors is instrumental in guiding us along the path of greater impact and effectiveness as we grow. We consider all of our volunteers as vital to For All Ages! We believe that every individual plays a critical role in helping to propel us forward and serve more residents across the state.


2 — Volunteering provides you with a sense of purpose as well as a sense of community. And volunteering helps counteract the effects of stress and anxiety. For All Ages is dedicated to improving the social connectedness of people of all ages, which translates to improved mental and physical health. Volunteering is one way to meaningfully connect with others to improve your health and well-being.


Sandy Flagg

Director — Waste Not Want Not Community Kitchen

1 — We are a 14-year 501c3 not-for-profit and all-volunteer Granby organization, and we serve 300-350 meals every Wednesday! In addition, we offer groceries, clothing and other household supplies to assist our diners. We have over 50 volunteers each week and some of us plan our lives around our weekly commitment. We have no paid staff — everyone is 100% volunteer. Many serve 20-plus hours a week, and a few serve 40-plus — amazing! I continue to be humbled by the generosity of spirit in this wonderful group of people!


2 — Our volunteers are close and give generously of their time, often filling in for each other. Many strong friendships result in our time together. The pandemic caused many changes and reorganization of our serving style but never interrupted our service. We are reminded every week how important the continuity of our meal is to a major number of our families.


Kristen Formanek

Director of Social Services — Town of Simsbury

1 — Our volunteers are an essential part of our team. They assist us with many programs and services, and if not for them we may not be able to offer such a wide variety of opportunities. Our large team of volunteers also helps us to reduce our operating costs. They bring special skills that provide additional programs or services. We have a volunteer who provides one-on-one technology tutoring for older adults who need assistance with smartphones, tablets and computers. This is a very popular program. We have two volunteers who prepare and serve a monthly supper to older adults. The seniors really enjoy this home-cooked meal.


2 — The three benefits I have observed are making new friends, feeling part of the community, and having a sense of purpose. Our volunteers genuinely enjoy helping others.


Lisa Gray

Executive Director — Gifts of Love

1 — Volunteers are absolutely vital to the success of Gifts of Love, as we simply could not operate without them. Our nearly 1,500 volunteers collect and sort essential items like food and clothing, perform front desk duties, assist clients with meeting their basic needs, and more.


2 — Their only reward is seeing the smiles on the faces of clients and staff alike as they make life a little easier for struggling members of our community.


Ryan Gorecki

Director of Volunteers — Habitat for Humanity of North Central Connecticut

1 — Volunteers are the heart of our mission and help to drive our organization every single day. Volunteers help to build our homes, stock our ReStore, and share our mission as ambassadors. Our work would not be possible without our volunteer community! All of our volunteers play an important role in our work, from construction to office support — it all helps us to build homes, community and hope.Vital roles over the last year have included:

• Construction — supported four new homes in Windsor and one rehab in Hartford.

• ReStore — supported our new ReStore in Vernon and expanded inventory in Bloomfield.

• Specialized & Virtual – supported Habitat Family Partnerships, Youth Advocacy programming, mission-share objectives and virtual campaigns.


2 — Volunteers can derive many positive benefits through service: community connection, perspective, experience and knowledge building, collaborative networks, and passion and purpose. Plus fulfillment that you are making a difference and that you are doing good work for those who need it most in your community. Spend a day, change a life — your impact is more profound than you think!


Morgan Hilyard

Executive Director — Granby-Simsbury Chamber of Commerce

1 — Volunteers are an essential element of a functioning Chamber of Commerce in several different ways. The governing body of a COC itself is made up of volunteer members and these directors determine the goals, priorities and direction for the organization. We have many committees available to members such as Health and Wellness, Ambassadors and Education. These various committees have their specific niche within the organization and add to the benefits the Chamber provides the members and community through their own initiatives. We also offer three large signature events that require volunteers each year — the Golf Tournament, Celebrate the Valley and Spooktacular. These events are a huge undertaking and provide community enrichment and would not be possible without volunteers to fill various roles.


2 — Volunteers who are members and participate on the board or a committee benefit by forming more relationships with other proactive professionals, helping guide the Chamber in a direction they will benefit from, and by increased visibility through the website and other resources. Event volunteers thoroughly enjoy participating in a fun-filled day where they not only help the Chamber but are able to interact with the community, and there is such a great sense of camaraderie within these groups.


Paula Kelley

President — Farmington Food Pantry

1 — The Farmington Food Pantry is a 100% volunteer 501c3 organization, including the 14-member board, so without the dedication of our volunteers there would be no pantry. In addition to the day-to-day management of operations, key roles are food drive coordinators, food purchasing coordinators, shopping day assistants, volunteer coordinator (sourcing and scheduling volunteers) and those who restock and keep the pantry inventory organized. We also have a media/PR volunteer, a technology volunteer and a financial specialist volunteer as treasurer.


2 — Many of our volunteers have been with the Farmington Food Pantry for years. The sense of serving the community and gaining an understanding of how food insecurity impacts all residents is quite the learning experience. The genuine gratitude the shoppers express to our volunteers as they shop for food and personal care items provides instant feedback for how impactful their volunteer time is.


Alan E. Rosenberg

Director of Human Services — Town of Avon

1 — Volunteers are very important and quite essential to our department’s successful operation. They assist with many programs, including the food bank, holiday program and senior center, and provide transportation for seniors needing grocery shopping. We have volunteers from various local organizations, such as the Rotary Club, Avon UNICO, the Lions Club and many other religious, civic and community organizations who have played vital roles in our programs.


2 — Volunteers derive a great deal of satisfaction in serving others and giving back to the community through their efforts.


Sarah Thompson

Co-Lead — ShopBlackCT.com

1 — Volunteers are crucial for ShopBlackCT, as our entire initiative is volunteer-run. We have several roles that volunteers fulfill: social media, writing, photography, data, website management, events/promotion, marketing and others. The success of ShopBlackCT.com is thanks to many people working together to make a difference by spreading the word about our site and offering resources to elevate and amplify Black-owned businesses in Connecticut. A team of volunteers give their time, energy and talent to keep ShopBlackCT running and relevant. Team members do not profit anything off of the site nor is the site used for any financial or personal gain. This effort is 100% about giving, lifting up others and expecting nothing in return.


2 — ShopBlackCT volunteers work together toward our mission: to challenge structural racism and transform the legacy of economic and social inequity in the U.S. by providing a platform to drive business to and awareness of local Black-owned businesses. By doing so, our volunteers make a significant difference in the community, foster relationships with each other and business owners, connect with other community members, practice their craft, and know that they are working for a worthy cause.


Terri Wilson

President — Avon Historical Society

1 — Since the Avon Historical Society is a 100% volunteer organization, every person who spends time with us is vital to our success. As the president, I pride myself in delegating and allowing volunteers to be in charge of their own ideas and projects. All I ask is that they report to me on how it’s going so if I am asked, I know what to say. I always give credit to the person who did the work. I think giving people credit is the best part of volunteering — it encourages continued participation. At any one time, we have over 25 people (including board of directors) who are working on something for the Society — fundraising, social media, finances, building management, research, writing, etc. They complete our mission. No one person can do it all, nor should they!


2 — Volunteers who believe in the mission of the organization they are working with do it for altruistic reasons – they love the idea of helping, being part of something bigger and working with others. They give time and their talents for free, which is something that everyone should be doing in a democratic society. The benefits are as much as the volunteer wants it to be. It can be making new friends, accomplishing a huge goal, giving back to the community or someone in particular who did something for them, etc. The benefits of volunteering never end if one enjoys what they do and who they are doing it with! +


Besides the above, Today Magazine contacted additional managers of Valley organizations — including the other Chamber of Commerce and the other three town social service departments — but we haven’t seen replies to our emails requesting comment


Today Magazine covers the heart of the Farmington Valley — Avon, Canton, Farmington, Granby and Simsbury


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