A Call For Volunteers In Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor Fire Chief Steve Miller discusses the challenges facing his department at a meeting on volunteerism sponsored by the Sag Harbor Village Board on January 22. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

By all accounts, Sag Harbor would appear to be a vibrant community with any number of thriving civic organizations. But the 30 people who showed up for a January 22 Village Board work session dedicated to the subject of encouraging volunteerism agreed that more help would always be welcome.

“Volunteers are the backbone of this village and many small villages like it all over the country,” said Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy as she surveyed the audience at the beginning of a 90-minute discussion on the topic. “Our volunteers are graying just like me, and just like an awful lot of you as I look out there.”

Representatives of groups as diverse as the fire department and library board described their activities and how those who might like to help out could lend a hand.

“How do we reach out and how do we, as village government, help that happen?” Ms. Mulcahy asked. “What can we do to make volunteers’ lives better and thank them?”

The East End’s most pressing social issue — the need for more affordable housing — was listed by several speakers as a key to both attracting and retaining volunteers. Others said it was important to connect potential volunteers with organizations they would like to serve, perhaps by sponsoring a communitywide volunteer fair or adding contact information to the village website.

Hilary Loomis, a director of Save Sag Harbor, asked if it would be possible for the village to extend its reach and solicit members to serve on its various regulatory boards from outside the incorporated village.

Trustee Aidan Corish questioned the wisdom of that idea, saying it could cause problems down the road when Sag Harbor finds itself “having decisions made on our behalf by people who don’t have a vested interest in the village.” Still, he added, “we don’t have a very deep well to go to — we see the same faces.”

Gloria Primm Brown, a member of the John Jermain Memorial Library board, said there were many reasons why people are hesitant to volunteer. She cited everything from a lack of time to an unwillingness to drive at night. But she stressed, “People don’t always know who needs help … There is no list in the village of the nonprofits and other agencies that might need volunteers and what that might entail.”

One answer, she suggested, would be to hold a volunteer fair. “We don’t know who needs the help,” she said. “Perhaps we could all get together at a place — maybe the library, I’d vote for it — and have a fair.”

The idea was seconded by Nancy Achenbach, president of the Sag Harbor Historical Society, who suggested the fair could be held on Main Street during the height of the summer season, when the village is typically packed with second-home owners.

Melissa Hesler, the vice president of the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said the organization’s volunteers are happy to serve, even though they are asked to carry a heavy burden, with a high volume of calls, intensive training and many other duties.

“There’s not a lot of young people, because they can’t afford to live here,” she said, adding that many young people who do live in the area are saddled with the prospect of working two or three jobs just to get by.

Fire Chief Steve Miller said even the Sag Harbor Fire Department, which has typically had a full cadre of members, is slowly graying as fewer young people join, either because they cannot commit the time required or cannot afford to live here. He said, traditionally, one generation follows the next into the department, but those ties are beginning to fray.

With 150 members out of a maximum allowed of 165, “we don’t really have a problem yet, but we are getting there,” he said.

“I want to reiterate what we heard from the ambulance corps and the fire department is, we are losing people because nobody can afford to live here,” said Jonas Hagen, a member of the Planning Board and Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust, who stressed he was speaking as a private citizen. “Stable housing is very important. If we are talking about volunteerism, that has to be part of the conversation.”

Sag Harbor School Board President Jordania Sobey said the district depends on volunteers and said she found that one way to attract them was to target those with the skills that can be applied to a specific task. She said she has more success from one-on-one contacts than email blasts or other broader-based methods.

Marit Molin, a Pierson parent who is involved in a number of volunteer activities in and out of the schools, said, “I ask for very small things. People are very busy.” So instead of asking someone if they would like to help run an activity, she asks if they would be able to donate an hour of their time, she said.

Representing the Sag Harbor Partnership and the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, April Gornik agreed that every little bit helps.

“It’s like Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. “Even if somebody just goes and buys the pie and brings it, they feel they are part of it, and it makes for a much better organization. It’s an enriching experience for everybody.”

Village Trustee Tom Gardella said sometimes it’s as simple as taking a few minutes to talk to someone. He recounted a story of being approached by a man who noticed he was wearing an EMS T-shirt and asked if he had time to talk about the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps. The result of that conversation, he said, was that the ambulance corps had a new member.

“That’s really what has to happen,” Mr. Gardella said. “You need to discuss with people what’s involved and have a conversation.”

Although an element of the discussion was the need to attract younger members to civic organizations, Mr. Gardella noted that the new volunteer he cited was 69 years old. “We talk about age. We want to get younger members, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you are out there willing to help, you should step forward.”

Bob Weinstein, representing Save Sag Harbor, urged people to join his organization as the only “independent community-supported group that advocates for the protection of the historic designation, character of scale, and quality of life of our village.”

Evelyn Ramunno talked about the satisfaction the volunteers at the Sag Harbor food pantry felt when they helped provide nutritious meals for the indigent.

Bethany Deyermond, a member of the Village Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, made a pitch for several organizations including the Ladies Village Improvement Society, the Sag Harbor Historical Society and the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary.

“As we all know, it takes a village and the whole community to keep it strong and vital,” she said. “One of the best parts of belonging to a volunteer organization is the opportunity to serve others and the community.”