PENINSULA - A quick perusal of the newspaper on any given week shows just how important and how much valuable work is accomplished by volunteers in the community. Often, the Observer runs articles seeking additional volunteers or letters thanking dedicated individuals.

Volunteer Shelly Pollock, a key organizer with the Grass Roots Garbage Gang which holds regular beach cleanups, is well aware of just how essential volunteers are for maintaining the quality of life in a community. So when the opportunity arose to hear an expert in that area speak, she arranged a gathering at the Moby Dick Hotel in Nahcotta on Sunday, June 25 to listen to him.

Jack McGowan along with his wife, Jan, head up a unique Oregon-based volunteer organization called SOLV, or Strengthening, Organizing and Leading Volunteers. SOLV has had tremendous success recruiting and organizing volunteers. Currently, they are active in more than 250 Oregon communities, with 35 full-time employees and an operating budget of $2.3 million. Pollock wanted to know how they grew from an operating budget of $10,000 in 1990 to achieve their current success.

McGowan told the small group his organization owes its existence to former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall, who started it in 1969. "He took other peoples' great ideas and made them reality," he said of the highly regarded McCall, who served from 1967-75.

One key condition outlined by McCall for the organization was that it would unite residents, businesses and government agencies. To accomplish this goal, the organization pledged to avoid taking any stand that might polarize people.

"It's not that we're chicken," said McGowan. But by setting aside differences, the organization could at least find a commonality around volunteerism and from there form a sense of community. The aim was to connect people, businesses and agencies, not politicize them. "We're all on the same planet," he said.

That formula seems to be working. Instead of fragmenting over contentious issues, the organization focuses on projects that "enhance the livability of Oregon." The idea has grown. In 1984 SOLV organized the first statewide beach cleanup day on the coast. Today, they have 12 separate program areas, including watershed cleanup, adopt-a-river and student education.

Pollock was interested in discovering how SOLV has been able to attract and maintain huge numbers of volunteers during a time when nationally, membership in volunteer service organizations has been declining.

McGowan told the group SOLV recognizes the change in the culture, how people live their lives, and they adopt their projects to accommodate people's abilities.

He said the problem is not that people have become more selfish, or uninterested. They still want to volunteer and be involved, they just can't always commit to weekly meetings.

"Our lives have become so compressed," he said. "It's hard trying to keep up with our day to day lives." So instead, the organization caters to what he calls "episodic volunteers," people who will show up for a prearranged event, such as a beach cleanup, and contribute a couple hours when they can.

He also stressed training of "core volunteers," those who can devote more time on specific projects and networking to strengthen the connections between potential volunteers and groups.

Jan, his wife and associate director explained. "(Volunteering) is not a one size fits all," she said. "(It can be) who do you know who knows somebody who knows somebody," who has the resources the project needs.

"We're a facilitator," said Jack.

With government budget cuts, volunteers are becoming increasingly important. "The government can't do it all," he said. "People are really having to take responsibility. It isn't hard to get the right people involved if we can engage people."

And the take home message? When people feel connected to where they live, when they take pride in their surroundings and environment, they will work and volunteer, to preserve it.

To find out more about SOLV, visit their Web site at www.solv.org. To find out about volunteer opportunities in the community, simple read the Chinook Observer weekly.

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