Fri, Mar 11, 2011 - Page 9 News List

An army of volunteers takes over services in one Texas town

By Rachel Williams  /  The Guardian, PLANO, Texas

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.

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