Volunteer shortfall troubles Gustavus

Dearth of help poses problems in community with no paid staff

Posted: Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Under a windowsill crowded with primroses, an old coat waits to be mended. People drop clothes off at Mary Hervin's house to be fixed, and she does it as time allows, for free.

Helping out is part of living in Gustavus, said Hervin, who's been a faithful volunteer there for 20 years.

``People are just all so good to us. I feel one thing you can do is give it back to people and the land and the world,'' said Hervin, who spends almost 30 hours a week volunteering at the library, thrift store and golf course.

But what's second nature for Hervin is alien to others.

``People just don't think to volunteer. We've got a lot of new people coming in,'' Hervin said. ``You ask some people and they say `Oh, I'm busy.'

``I said `Gosh, you can always get two hours out of the week to do something.'''

The shortfall of volunteers has become a crisis in Gustavus, where donated time and money take the place of a city staff and budget. The 375-person community is not a city, so it doesn't have the power to collect taxes to pay for services.

``We're kind of at a volunteer crisis,'' said Maureen Moore, chairperson of the Gustavus Community Association board. ``The wonderful thing about Gustavus, and also the thing that can hold us back, is that almost everything is done by volunteers.''

Volunteers run the library, the recycling program, the community secondhand store, the Internet service, even what passes for a community government. It pays only three part-time employees - a librarian, landfill manager and executive secretary. Even they donate time to jobs that have outgrown the paychecks.

Many communities would envy Gustavus for the dedicated volunteers it does have - more than a quarter of the residents.

Last year Gustavus volunteers logged 2,850 hours at the library. Only libraries in Juneau and Anchorage, where the population is hundreds of times that of Gustavus, could boast more volunteer hours.

``That's one of the standout volunteer libraries in the state,'' said Patience Frederiksen, grants administrator for the Alaska State Library in Anchorage. ``They've got everything going for it, but how much more can people do before they burn out?''

Burn out is already becoming a problem. There's more to do than hands to do it, and the tasks aren't evenly shared. Those who volunteer are called on to volunteer for everything, picking up the slack for those who don't.

Community association chairwoman Moore volunteers about 30 hours a month, at the library, the preschool, the community association and just picking up trash.

``I'm totally maxed at this point,'' said Moore.

About 100 people in Gustavus volunteer at least occasionally, ``but if you look at the other side, then there's three quarters of the town that don't,'' said Moore.

The shortage of volunteers is of particular concern for the Gustavus emergency response team, which handles medical emergencies and fires. Most members of the all-volunteer crew are in their 50s, and they're having trouble finding younger replacements, said Bruce Tedsen, the volunteer chief.

Luckily the Gustavus emergency crew gets no more than 30 calls a year, mostly medical problems or summer grass fires. But five years ago a lodge burned down and mid-April they put out to two brush fires in one day.

The shortage of volunteer firefighters is not unique to Gustavus, Tedsen said. Fire departments around the country are having trouble recruiting volunteers.

In Gustavus, part of the change in attitude stems from a change in the community. It used to be a mixture of fishermen, artists, National Park Service employees and retirees, Moore said. Now more tourism businesses are based in Gustavus, creating a seasonal population that works hard all summer and is gone all winter. The community has grown, with more houses and development, but the number of volunteers has not kept up.

``A lot of the new people coming in have a little different attitude about living,'' said Marion Farley, a volunteer preparing food in the school kitchen. ``They want the rural life, but they want all the things given to them.''

It took a year, and a dozen rejections, before Fawn Bauer found people willing to fill two spots on the clinic board of directors.

Gustavus residents value the volunteer spirit that built and runs the town.

``It's great. I'd hate to lose it, and that's one of the fears of the people who were against incorporation,'' said Nate Borson, who donates up to 10 hours a week maintaining the library computer network. ``I'm afraid if the Gustavus Community Association were too well funded through taxes, we'd lose all our social events.''

On the other hand, if the volunteer crisis continues, Gustavus will either lose services, or have to find another way to get the work done.

``We need like Mother Teresas,'' Bauer said. ``We need like wealthy people, either older people or younger people, that don't have that many hobbies and just want to give.''

The community association is considering assessing what all the services would cost, and sending out a statement in the electric bills asking for donations, said TJ Lazar, another library volunteer.

Much as the community needs cash, Moore would rather see people giving time than writing checks.

``Your time is worth more than any money sometimes,'' Moore said. ``If everybody could share the load a little bit it would be a very good thing.''

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