The cash-strapped City Hall is turning more and more to volunteers to accomplish tasks from park cleanups to disaster recovery.
Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy called for volunteers to pass out emergency information before Tropical Storm Irene hit, and is now recruiting volunteers to be matched with property owners who need help repairing storm damage.
He also used volunteers to clean up the city’s snow-dump site at Central Park this spring. Most recently, GE volunteers interested in park cleanups were sent to City Hall to find out where they were needed, and city officials researched park needs before asking them to paint the playground at Vale Park.
McCarthy believes volunteer work will strengthen community bonds while also helping the city complete projects that it can’t afford on its own. He also thinks it will give residents the power to address some of the problems in their neighborhood.
“They understand some of the problems and they’re working to correct them,” he said.
He expects many new volunteers to join the ranks of those who have labored for years through church and neighborhood groups.
“People, I think, have a very high willingness to help out, or do good, but they don’t know what to do, there’s not a specific project,” McCarthy said, adding that volunteers also sometimes need an introduction before they can start work.
“There’s an awkwardness to walking down the street and just saying, ‘Hey, can I help?’ ” he said.
His staff is developing a database of projects so that volunteers can see a list based on when they’re available.
McCarthy’s opponent in the mayoral election said McCarthy was on the right track — but questioned why no one had ever started such a program before.
“It’s something I did for 24 years. It’s an obvious thing. That should have been done long ago,” said Roger Hull, the former president of Union College.
Hull instituted “mandatory volunteerism” at the college, requiring all freshmen to do two days of volunteer work during orientation. “I wanted them to feel and see what they might be able to have an impact with,” he said.
During his tenure, many students became regular volunteers, particularly with Big Brothers Big Sisters. “We had the only Big Brothers Big Sisters program that was headquartered at a college campus,” Hull said.
Hull and Price Chopper CEO Neil Golub’s Schenectady 2000 program also marshaled hundreds of volunteers to clean up Schenectady’s parks, Vale Cemetery and other sites. Hull often cites that work as being more important than the development of the Metroplex Development Authority, which also rose out of Schenectady 2000.
“What was more important, in my opinion, was the feeling of optimism that developed when people saw we could really get things done,” he said.
McCarthy is going in the right direction, Hull said, but he should do far more to organize volunteerism. “It’s just not enough,” he said. “The first thing you do is you bring the organizations together, bring the businesses together.”
Then, he said, city staff should proactively seek out projects for the volunteers to undertake.
McCarthy has had some success — about 20 people have volunteered so far to help Stockade residents recover from the flood. Skilled city workers and contractors have also volunteered, and city staff are now asking the local trade unions to help.
About 15 residents volunteered to deliver emergency information before Irene hit, and about 80 people showed up for the Central Park cleanup.
On Thursday, nearly 40 GE workers painted and weeded at the Vale Park Playground.
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