Jill Young stands less than 1.6m tall. Rimless spectacles perch on her nose and wisps of white hair escape from under her hat. In years gone by, when she worked as a secretary, she was an avid square-dancer and “clogger” — it’s a type of tap dancing — but at 75 she’s given that up. Her feet, worn out from all that jigging, wouldn’t let her, for a start.
(“I’m walking on bone,” she confides).
Instead, Young is spending her retirement dishing out parking fines to drivers misusing disabled spaces, being hoisted into the air in a cherrypicker to scan car parks for suspicious activity, and taking part in mock riots to help police with crowd control training, all as part of her role as a volunteer with the police force in Plano, Texas.
Last year she clocked up 1,400 hours of service; in total she has devoted more than 4,500 hours to the role. She proudly pulls back her bomber jacket to show off the medals on her shirt to prove it.
Young is not alone in her dedication to her city. About 4,000 of its 280,000 residents are currently signed up to the Volunteers in Plano (VIP) program. Last year they put in 89,634 hours doing everything from helping the fire service to teaching children about energy conservation — work with an estimated value of US$1.66 million. It’s not just the sexy jobs they are signing up for either: Many simply volunteer to help with filing in the city government’s offices, and some former employees even come back to give their time for free after they have retired.
Mentions of the “big society” are met with blank looks in the Dallas suburb-turned-city, and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s name doesn’t elicit much recognition, but this, surely, is where his dream of turbo-charged civic engagement is a reality. The program’s fans include Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the recently retired executive director of Community Service Volunteers (CSV) and so-called “mother of volunteering.”
But why does it work so well — and could it be replicated elswhere?
Robin Popik, who has run VIP for 20 of its 28 years, says there are certain key features.
“You need somebody to co-ordinate the program — someone who has worked with volunteers before and understands the difference between human resources and volunteer management,” she says. “And you need a system for volunteers to sign up, and be screened and matched with the appropriate job.”
Crucially, having volunteers running services does involve financial outlay — it costs around US$150,000 a year to run the program.
Plano lets residents register online and uses the same tailored software to track their hours. Popik, who has a string of professional qualifications in managing volunteers, including a master’s degree in non-profit management, interviews them personally to find them the right position.
Critically, she says, you need to make sure there are benefits for volunteers as well as those they are helping: “It has to be an opportunity for both to grow and get their needs met.”
For many, that means having something to do in retirement that gives them a routine, stops them feeling isolated and lets them socialize.
About one-quarter of Plano’s volunteers are over 65.
Time and time again they talk of delighting in “something to get me out of the house.”
Young is no exception. On a January day as eye-wateringly bright as it is chilly, she and her regular patrol partner Neal Katz, a 56-year-old self-employed insurance agent, are in a Walmart parking lot scouring the disabled spaces for vehicles without the right permits.
She goes out on patrol up to three times a week, for four or five hours at a time.
“Anybody that’ll go out with me, I’ll go,” she says. “I think of crime prevention as my family; they take care of me.”
It’s a similar story for Arlene Peacock. The 80-year-old has lost track of quite how long she’s been coming in to the geriatric wellness center to answer the phone, file records and check out commodes, walking frames and bed pans.
Her husband died 12 years ago and with her family far away, she took up volunteering to avoid “getting stuck in a rut.”
Does it feel strange that the people she helps are often younger than her?
Not really, she says: “When you’re 80 a lot of people are younger than you.”
The city strives to give its younger residents reasons to give their time too, hoping they will see its broader benefits once they get started. About 400 teenagers are giving their time at the moment and there’s already a waiting list for the summer.
Amy Church, 18, had to do 50 hours of community service as part of her International Baccalaureate. She completed her allotted stint in the community gardens months ago; now she goes back every Saturday to help with mulching, composting and weeding for the sheer joy of it. She’s made friends outside her age group and enjoys the change of scene.
“I’m giving something back to the community when I’m volunteering,” she says, as she gives a tour of the garden’s raised beds. “It’s just a good feeling.”
In the current economic climate, says Popik, many people use the system as a chance to gain new skills, particularly if they are out of work and looking for a new job.
Making sure people are thanked and appreciated for their work is crucial; the city holds frequent “recognition events” where valued volunteers are lauded.
Yet some of these jobs must sound, to many, far from fun. Len MacIsaac is one of 214 volunteers who help out in the city’s libraries, sorting through donated books that are sold to raise extra cash and stacking shelves. He loves it, but the sorting job, which often involves piles of tomes untouched for years, is dirty, dusty and repetitive work.
“I have to take a shower when I get home. No question,” he says.
Being a traffic warden is a position so unpopular in the UK that many people would probably refuse to do it if you paid them, let alone expected them to do it for free. Young and Katz say that while they only police disabled spaces — and will rip up the tickets and issue verbal warnings instead if someone comes back while they’re still there — which makes many shoppers pleased to see them, there are less happy customers too. Young had a near miss once when an irate driver tried to run her over.
You sense that a very American culture of respect for authority and law enforcement plays a role here, as well as an arguably better developed civic spirit than in Britain.
“We take pride in being Plano-ites,” says Bill Neisel, as he takes a break from showing fourth-graders round a restored early 20th-century railway carriage at the Interurban Railway Museum. “Our roots are sunk down deep. We just want to make it the best city that we can.”
And of course there’s a lower expectation of what the state should provide in the first place.
“I pay enough taxes,” says Neisel’s colleague Harold Larson. “I don’t want to pay for someone to come here and do what I can do for free.”
The museum is a case in point: It was set up to be run by volunteers, and would be forced to close without their work.
Plano is rich. Its downtown area may be past its best, but drive west and you hit road after road of ever fancier homes, all pillars and gigantic porticos. CNN’s Money magazine once named it the 11th best place to live in the US; last year Forbes magazine claimed it was the US’ safest city. All of this makes it fertile ground for volunteering. However, the city’s budget took a cut of 3.9 percent this year. Does that mean it will be tempted to use volunteers to take over staff roles?
Popik insists that would never happen and never has done. The program’s aim is to enhance services, not replace them. And volunteers, who must be free to take time off as and when they want, cannot provide the necessary consistency in a way that paid staff can, she says. They also need supervision, so budget cuts mean less volunteering, if anything.
Hoodless, who last month warned that cuts were undermining the big society and risked wrecking the volunteering that already existed in the UK, believes that for all the differences between the US and Britain, a Plano-style project could work here. However, having someone as committed as the formidable Popik, and the funded system she presides over, is crucial, she says. Volunteers don’t just spring up without opportunities being offered, and they need support.
“The infrastructure is in the process of collapse,” Hoodless says. “People don’t tend to be offered tasks. It’s critical to have a person there to negotiate with managers and organize volunteers.
“Just cutting the funding does no good at all. If there aren’t libraries, people can’t volunteer to work for those libraries. And somebody would have to be prepared to take responsibility for organizing it. If councils say they can’t afford it, what about these bankers? They could sponsor it,” Hoodless says.
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