People have been helping one another, at no charge, since time began, but you may be surprised at just how diverse the options for volunteering are today.
You may not have noticed, but your neighbors are quietly transforming your community by volunteering.
Ways to serve have widened beyond ladling soup at the soup kitchen, delivering flowers at the hospital or working through a service organization. While these remain great ways to volunteer, previously unimagined opportunities have emerged in all kinds of realms, including the arts, education, the environment, wellness and animal care. This holds true nationwide, and the Old Northwest Territory is no exception.
At a time when online communities may compete with or even replace face-to-face interaction with geographical neighbors, in-person volunteerism is wonderful way to meet friends who share similar interests. And, many worthy organizations today rely upon volunteers more heavily than ever before.
Paul Nolley, community impact manager at United Way of Rock River Valley, says many public service agencies need volunteers to fill the gap created by the Illinois budget crisis.
“Many programs across Illinois have been forced to close either temporarily or permanently due to the budget crisis,” Nolley says. “But for some of those that have managed to continue operations, volunteers can be a critical factor in their sustainability.”
Volunteers are needed now more than at any time in recent memory, making this a great time for people who’ve been thinking about it to take the leap. There are online resources to help match volunteers with opportunities that fit their interests and schedules, such as United Way Rock River Valley at unitedwayrrv.org and Volunteer Match at volunteermatch.org.
Here, we introduce you to seven individuals who contribute their time, talent and energy to causes about which they’re passionate. They just may inspire you to do likewise.
Position: Volunteer Gardener, Rotary Botanical Gardens, Janesville, Wis., rotarybotanicalgardens.org
City of residence: Janesville, Wis.
Rotary Botanical Gardens Mission: To enrich lives through natural beauty, education and the arts.
As a retired widow, Kathy Poole was out walking near Rotary Botanical Gardens one day. The beautifully landscaped entrance and historic building beckoned to her. She paid the entrance fee and explored the 20-acre grounds. The winding paths, specialty gardens, pavilions, lake, lawns and reflecting pools captured her heart.
“I wanted to come back every day,” says Poole, “so I asked if I could volunteer.” For the past three years, she has worked four hours a day, five days a week, helping to cultivate the garden showcase. She pulls weeds, rakes leaves, plants bulbs and plants, labels seeds, cleans garden tools and performs other tasks, as needed.
“Seeing the plants come alive in the spring, seeing how happy the visitors are and hearing the children are some of the joys I experience,” she says. “I also love working with the staff and other volunteers and sharing stories with them. It’s very rewarding and a great place to volunteer if you like the great outdoors and friendly people.”
Similar Volunteer Opportunities in our region: Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, klehm.org; Rockford Park District’s Sinnissippi Rose Garden, nicholasconservatory.com
Position: Docent at Anderson Japanese Gardens, Rockford andersongardens.org
City of residence: Rockford
Anderson Japanese Gardens Mission: To be a place of beauty, inspiration and renewal for all who visit.
In his five years as a docent at Anderson Japanese Gardens (AJG), Randy Zimmerman has taken his role beyond that of mere tour guide. Relishing the gardens’ tranquility, he was inspired to develop several programs to enhance the visitor experience by helping people to find personal peace and equanimity through mindfulness and meditative practices.
“The root of these specialized programs lies in learning how to empty the mind, focus the mind, use thoughts as the fundamental tool of creation – creation of one’s self – and to reside in the present moment as much as possible.
“The only place that we can experience and live life is in this moment,” he says. “So we would do well to attend to it, or we will miss the experiences of this thing we call life. This theme of attending to the present moment, coupled with the technique of using our breath as a tool to help achieve that focus, allows us to empty our minds of extraneous thoughts and to focus our minds on this very moment of life. Almost instantly, people gain a broader, deeper perception and appreciation of life around them and their inseparable connection to it.”
To introduce, illustrate and teach the underlying concepts and techniques, Zimmerman’s Mindful Awareness walks make use of various features in the gardens, such as the waterfalls, bridges and guest house.
The mindfulness programs Zimmerman has been leading at Anderson Japanese Gardens caught the attention of staff members at the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association of Illinois. At their request, Zimmerman adapts guided experiences for Alzheimer’s patients and care providers to help reduce the stress inherent with the condition.
In October of last year, the model program that Zimmerman developed with the Rockford-area Alzheimer’s Association was presented in Chicago at the State of Illinois’ annual Alzheimer’s Association Conference.
Impact: Zimmerman’s mindfulness walks and Alzheimer’s programs have become regular offerings at AJG, with many repeat participants saying that the meditative experience has profoundly benefitted them.
Other Volunteer Opportunities at Anderson Japanese Gardens: Garden docents, tour group leaders, garden maintenance (raking, weeding, planting), and office assistants.
Similar Volunteer Opportunities in our region: Docent at Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Rockford, klehm.org; Docent at Rotary Botanical Gardens, Janesville, Wis., rotarybotanicalgardens.org
Position: Coordinator for Bluebird Recovery Program for Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation, Elizabeth, Ill., jdcf.org
City of residence: Rural Stockton, Ill.
Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation Mission: JDCF works to preserve land for the lasting wellbeing of people and wildlife.
On behalf of the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation, Dick Bach monitors bluebird boxes on trails in Jo Daviess County and coordinates the work of 50 volunteer bluebird monitors on foundation properties, government refuges and private properties. He organizes the season and oversees all bluebird recovery activities through the year-end report summarizing results.
The program’s mission is to ensure the survival of Eastern Bluebirds by providing well-constructed and positioned nest boxes for parents and their broods. All nest boxes on each trail are checked by volunteer monitors weekly throughout the season to evaluate and record the condition of these boxes, the health of the eggs and nestlings, the need to manage any pests, and ultimately celebrate successful fledglings. During the past 10 years, JDCF’s program has helped to fledge more than 13,000 bluebirds.
“I very much enjoy the companionship of other talented and dedicated monitors working together in our common mission,” says Bach. “We share experiences and information we’ve learned on the trails, and the satisfaction of knowing that we have helped to save bluebirds from a serious decline in our area and are creating a sustainable population for the enjoyment of future generations.”
People enjoy seeing bluebirds because they’re so beautiful. Monitors often express the immense pleasure they experience when they open a nest box and discover a new nest, new bright blue eggs or new hatchlings. An even greater reward comes when they open a box and find that the growing nestlings have fledged. The foundation conducts workshops and trail walks to introduce people to the joys of bluebird trail monitoring, and recruits them to join a team trail, where they learn from experienced monitors.
Impact: “The success of this program encourages others to take on difficult tasks that will protect the ecosystems in our region and the wildlife they harbor,” says Bach.
Other Volunteer Opportunities at Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation: Caring for restored natural areas, maintaining trails, guiding tours, assisting with events and monitoring conservation easements
Similar Volunteer Opportunities in our region: Plant and animal monitoring at Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, winnebagoforest.org; Bird monitoring at Nygren Wetland Preserve, Rockton, Ill., naturalland.org; Bird survey work at Boone County Conservation District, bccdil.com.
Position: Costume Creator at Rockford Dance Company, Rockford, rockforddancecompany.com
City of residence: Rockford, Ill.
Rockford Dance Company Mission: To pursue excellence in the art of dance through performance, education and outreach.
The plaque on the door of the Rockford Dance Company costume shop reads, “Special thanks to Julie Seger, Costume Goddess Volunteer, 1996 to 2012.” But Seger didn’t hang up her measuring tape in 2012; she’s still there sewing, fitting, repairing, laundering and renovating hundreds of costumes.
Seger began her volunteer career at RDC when her daughters danced at the school of the Rockford Dance Company. Her eldest daughter was cast in “The Nutcracker,” and the call went out for help with costumes. Seger started by sewing hook ‘n eyes on tutus and painting clown makeup on young faces.
In a few years, she was promoted to Costume Coordinator. Seger recalls, “We started by refreshing old costumes and when we got the courage and some instruction, we made tutus.” She continued to work with parents and community members, producing hundreds of costumes and scenery pieces for about 20 years, thus earning her Costume Goddess title.
“I officially retired from RDC about six years ago but couldn’t stay away,” Seger confesses. “When there’s a need for a costumer, I put on my seamstress hat and head for the costume shop, where the sewing machines are waiting for me and anyone else willing to pitch in.”
As wearable works of art, costumes are critical elements of quality performances. Seamstresses and costume caretakers are needed to help create attire and props for diverse stage and community performances.
Impact: Making the costumes for the Rockford Dance Company has enhanced the overall performance experience for dancers and audiences alike. By providing high-quality costumes, Seger’s volunteer work has freed RDC funds for providing programming for dance students and community organizations they serve through outreach.
Other Volunteer Opportunities at Rockford Dance Company: build sets, usher, raise funds
Similar Volunteer Opportunities in our region: Artists Ensemble, Rockford, Ill., artistsensemmble.org; Pec Playhouse Theater, Pecatonica, Ill., (815) 239-1210; Children’s Theater Project/Youth Theater Project, Rockford, Ill., ctpytp.org; Starlight Theater, rockvalleycollege.edu/Community/Theatre.
Position: Ecological Restoration and Citizen Scientist at Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, Ill., winnebagoforest.org
City of Residence: Belvidere, Ill.
Forest Preserves of Winnebago County (FPWC) Mission: To protect, conserve, enhance and promote Winnebago County’s natural heritage for the environmental, educational, and recreational benefit of present and future generations.
Ryan Prosser saw an announcement for an educational session on butterfly monitoring in the forest preserves. He attended out of curiosity and signed up to volunteer because it sounded like a rewarding activity he and his family could participate in on weekends. Once he began visiting the preserves to document butterflies, he realized the importance of the little remaining habitat for butterflies and other wildlife.
“I decided I wanted to help restore and care for these special places by becoming a stewardship volunteer as part of FPWC’s REAP (Restoration, Education, Appreciation, Preservation) program,” Prosser says. On the third Saturday of every month, REAP volunteers work in various preserves removing invasive plants, collecting seeds and planting native wildflowers and trees.
“I love the fact that I can bring my entire family to the REAP workdays. It’s a great opportunity to get outside and get active with our kids and also show them the importance of being generous with our time and talents,” says Prosser.
“Plus it’s really fun and educational; we get to learn a lot about the natural history of this region.”
There are very few natural areas left in the state of Illinois. Unfortunately, the introduction of non-native plants and animals made it very difficult for these patches of protected land to exist in a healthy state without human intervention. They need to be nurtured and preserved and you can help.
Impact: There are more than 10,000 acres of forest preserves in Winnebago County. “Without help from volunteers it becomes very difficult to give these preserves the attention they deserve,” Prosser explains. “Stewardship volunteers help support the work of FPWC ecologists by contributing needed TLC for keeping the restored woods and prairies healthy and sustainable.”
Other Volunteer Opportunities at Forest Preserves of Winnebago County: Plant and animal monitoring (Citizen Science), plant propagation, events, nature education
Similar Volunteer Opportunities in our region: Habitat stewardship at Natural Land Institute, naturalland.org; Habitat Stewardship at Boone County Conservation District, bccdil.org.
Position: Pet Peace of Mind team leader for Northern Illinois Hospice, Rockford, northernillinoishospice.org
City of residence: Rockford
Northern Illinois Hospice Mission: To deliver extraordinary and dignified care, comfort and compassion to individuals and families, at the end of life.
Libby Knopp began volunteering at Northern Illinois Hospice as a Pet Visit Program volunteer with her lab mix therapy dog, Brynn. Together they visit and provide companionship and comfort to Northern Illinois Hospice patients.
As a Pet Visit Program volunteer, Knopp learned about Northern Illinois Hospice’s Pet Peace of Mind program and felt drawn to serve in that capacity as well. Knopp describes Pet Peace of Mind as “an awesome program designed to provide services to our patients so that their companion animals can remain with them through the end of their life journey.”
If the family needs assistance in getting veterinarian care for their pet, Pet Peace of Mind assists with transporting and financial support. Services include providing pet food, litter, flea, tick and heartworm medication and basic veterinary care. If a Northern Illinois Hospice patient’s pet needs a walk, volunteers can provide that, too. Knopp says, “Our families have a lot of stress, and if we can help relieve some of that stress by assisting with their beloved pets, we do it.”
The Pet Peace of Mind program is 100 percent funded by grants and donations.
“I love the volunteer work that I do with Northern Illinois Hospice,” Knopp says. “I can’t say enough about the organization. Even though I’m a volunteer, I feel like an integral part of a phenomenal team. I know the information I bring back from a visit with a patient is shared with the clinical staff, social workers and devotional staff. I’ve witnessed firsthand incredibly caring and compassionate care. They’re truly amazing.”
Northern Illinois Hospice is always looking to add to its volunteer team. There are many ways for patient care volunteers to assist and provide comfort, such as sitting with a client and having a conversation or just listening; holding a hand in comfort; playing a game; watching a television show together or reading a book out loud.
Other Volunteer Opportunities at Northern Illinois Hospice: Certified cosmetologists and/or nail technicians, handymen/or women, bakers, errand runners, office workers, gardeners and workers for special events or projects.
Position: Workshop Volunteer at Angelic Organics Farm & Learning Center, Caledonia Ill., learngrowconnect.org
City of Residence: Rockton, Ill.
Angelic Organics Farm & Learning Center Mission: To build sustainable local food and farm systems through experiential education and training programs in partnership with rural and urban people.
Kat Cook wears many hats at Angelic Organics Learning Center, a 100-acre organic and biodynamic Community Assisted Agriculture (CSA) farm and education center. Her role is to assist on-farm educators with diverse educational workshops offered for the public.
She helps adults, children and families learn skills such as beekeeping, soap making, cheesemaking, chicken raising, organic gardening, garden produce preserving, permaculture and many more aspects of sustainable living.
Cook says she loves the variety of tasks as she carries out whatever is needed to assist the farm education staff.
“I do dishes, help set up the workshops, help clean up afterwards, and some behind-the-scenes work including posting events to various websites, data entry, and helping them prepare for their biannual appeal mailings,” says Cook.
“By spending time in this vital setting, I definitely receive as much as I give. Feeling part of the carefully nurtured land supporting pristine produce, crops, free-range chickens and frolicking goats just makes me feel more alive. Each time I volunteer here, I leave feeling refreshed and renewed.”
Impact: The education that AOLC provides empowers families to shift to food production and consumption that benefits their own health and the health of the planet. “It opens your eyes to ways of farming in harmony with nature instead of depleting it,” says Cook.
Other Volunteer Opportunities at Angelic Organics Learning Center: Landscape projects, office tasks, event planning, gardening, trail maintenance.
Every year, thousands of Old Northwest Territory residents are giving, growing and learning through a wide range of volunteer activities. Join them!
Whether creating, cultivating, comforting, mentoring, or just lending a pair of willing hands, you’ll be on the front lines of creating positive change and be truly connected to your community.