Pace of volunteer work changing Marylanders prefer to work longer shifts and to serve less often

September 01, 1996|By Erica C. Harrington | Erica C. Harrington,SUN STAFF

After a week of work, driving four children to four different sports and caring for seven rabbits, Ellen Hoke of Columbia spends two or three weekends a year leading members of Christ Episcopal Church in work with Habitat for Humanity.

"I would rather dedicate a whole weekend than donate a slice of every weekend or weeknight," said Hoke, a consultant with the World Health Organization who lives with her husband, Charles, in Hickory Ridge village. "You can do Habitat with your kids."

In Howard County, as in communities across the country, community service has moved from weekly two-hour luncheons in hotel banquet rooms to occasional all-day neighborhood revitalization projects.

Civic-minded people who may have joined a Rotary or Kiwanis club a generation ago have turned to one-time volunteer opportunities. In recent years, local chapters of some of these clubs have seen sharp drops in membership.

"People can't commit to a regular meeting, but are willing to participate in one-shot, short-duration activity," said Dr. Jon Van Til, a past president of the Association for Research on Non-Profit Organizations and Voluntary Action and an instructor at Rutgers University.

For some, that may mean donating blood to the Red Cross or organizing a church's food collection for Thanksgiving.

In the Hoke household, volunteering involves a few weekends a year rehabilitating homes in Baltimore with other members of their Oakland Mills church.

"When you have a dual-career couple with kids in sports, it's difficult to commit to something once a month," said Hoke, whose 18-year-old daughter, Allison, and 14-year-old son, Elliott, have accompanied her on the Habitat workdays. Her two other children, 10-year-old twins Courtney and Geoffrey, are too young to work with Habitat.

With one-shot Habitat activities, she said, "busy people feel they're helping to accomplish something tangible with the home they're producing."

Said Van Till: "Volunteering is not about to disappear, but old forms are falling by the wayside."

Indeed, though participation in civic organizations has declined, volunteering overall has remained relatively constant.

According to a 1994 Gallup Poll of adults, the latest figures available, volunteering across the country declined from 52 percent in 1992 to 48 percent in 1994.

In Maryland, 2 million residents participate in volunteer activities, devoting an average of four hours a week, said David A. Minges, former executive director of the Governor's Office on Volunteerism.

He said the economy and mood of the country determine how much and what type of volunteering is most popular.

Community service has shifted from rallying behind specific causes such as homelessness in the 1980s to working with issues closer to their home through local religious or educational organizations. Some 250,000 Marylanders volunteer with public schools.

"What we're seeing is a 'cocooning of volunteering,' where most people volunteer with their place of faith or in the education of their children," Minges said. "In the 1980s, it was involvement with a cause, but anytime a cause becomes prevalent, the hype wears off. People believe kids are a better investment of time rather than social issues."

Indeed, as membership in many traditional civic groups has dropped, participation in Howard County schools' PTAs is holding steady, said Virginia Charles, president of the county's PTA Council. The council had 21,507 members during the 1995-1996 school year, up from 20,895 members the previous year.

Still, she said, membership declines as children move into middle and high school and become more involved in extracurricular activities.

"As more and more parents work, schools have fewer volunteers, but it's not as noticeable in elementary school," Charles said. "Howard County has an affluent population which tends to be supportive of the goals of the PTA."

Experts and the civic organizations themselves say an economy that requires two incomes to support a family is the greatest factor in the membership decline in such groups as the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs.

Columbia Kiwanis Club President Cole Drew said his club's membership dwindled to 10 earlier this year after regular participants moved out of Howard County because of job transfers.

The loss threatened the club's ability to sponsor the annual Fourth of July fireworks on Lake Kittamaqundi, but a last-minute surge in membership -- now 16 -- saved the show.

Drew blamed the earlier lack of interest to the club's activities outside of regular meetings. "We have a tendency to be more hands-on," he said. "It gets more difficult because people don't want to devote time."

Clarksville Lions Club member Kenneth Shipley agreed. "We don't just hang a plaque on the wall and say we're Lions," Shipley said. "The number of people willing to serve is drastically reduced." He said the Clarksville group has 58 members -- down from a high of 93 five years ago.

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