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Volunteer development on the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail
By David G. Dionne
The B & A Trail is blessed with a rich supplement of donated time, services, funds and equipment. One of our fundamental Trail management philosophies is "Build the Trail in the community and then build the community into the Trail." Through the creation of volunteer programs and opportunities, hundreds of community volunteers have come forward to embrace our Trail and love what they own. These volunteers are park neighbors, families, youth organizations, trail advocates, civic groups, musicians, business owners, and local professionals. They become involved through scout troops, churches, senior centers, schools, and neighborhood organizations. In age, race, and economic ability they represent the full diversity of citizens in our county.
The volunteers at the B & A Trail have donated millions of dollars in time and services since 1987. The programs that generated this level of trail stewardship were based on some very simple truths and observations about our citizens. First, Americans love to volunteer. Volunteerism is woven into the social fabric of our nation. Second, volunteers need to be assigned meaningful tasks, not busy work. And they do not mind being challenged and stretched by an assignment. Third, good volunteer and stewardship programs must be actively managed. Volunteers need to be recruited, trained, evaluated and rewarded. Finally, the rewards are great, both for the volunteer and the trail.
Volunteers -- America's Most Unique Resource
Last summer I was asked to meet with a group of Chinese government officials who were studying in the United States. They were touring the region and meeting with a number of politicians and government workers to find ideas and trends that would successfully transfer back to China. After I briefly explained my job and the facilities I manage I told them about the volunteer programs at the B & A Trail. As I finished they were uncomfortable, exchanging glances and whispering questions to each other in Chinese. The Honorable Dean Johnson, Mayor of Annapolis, who had preceded me to the podium, got the same reaction when he spoke about the many active civic groups in the community. Finally, one of them asked the questions they were all considering. What is a volunteer and do we require people to take part in volunteer service? They struggled to understand how Americans, capitalists, volunteered on such a grand scale. They wrestled with the idea that citizens freely gave away some of their most precious resources, time and money. A lively fifteen-minute discussion followed and they began to grasp the spirit and depth of volunteerism in America.
The sacrifice and generosity of her citizens has dictated the history of America. We are a nation of volunteers. The common bond and spirit of groups like the Minutemen and other early settlers has been molded and refined into a spirit of community stewardship. Today, our landscapes is dotted with volunteer fire companies, civic organizations, Little League baseball teams, and scout troops; staffed by individuals and families that are committed to building their communities. We can weave their efforts together and see a tapestry of self-sacrifice and service to others that makes America unique among nations. Their example sets the standard for future generations. Their testimony draws a pattern for our lives. Their spirit lives at the many trail and greenway projects that connect our land.
Our effort to "Build the Community into the Trail" began with projects centered on youth organizations and their community service requirements. This simple beginning grew to become the intricate web of volunteers who actively love the trail and donate their time and energy to its promotion, protection and enhancement.
Youth Groups and Scouting Organizations
Youth groups and Scouting organizations are the greatest untapped energy source in the nation. Many of these organizations require participants to complete service projects for rank advancement or other awards. The B & A Trail staff keeps a list of service projects on hand and we actively recruit among the various organizations to get these projects completed. For example, Girl Scouts have planted more than 10,000 spring flower bulbs on slopes along the Trail, adding natural beauty and reducing our mowing area on hillsides. Forty Boy Scouts have completed the service project requirements for advancement to the rank of Eagle Scout. These young men have constructed flowerbeds, erected bulletin boards, restored historic artifacts, or installed the mileage markers and self guided history tour posts. Other youth groups have taken part in erosion control projects, trash bashes, and other maintenance projects. We find that the scout projects are a great focal point for building our volunteer base in the community. Other volunteers build on the scout's work.
Building on Success -- Adopt a Flowerbed Program
The Adopt-A-Flowerbed program grew out of the results of our youth group service projects. As Eagle Scouts finished construction of flowerbeds we recruited community volunteers to plant and maintain the beds throughout the year. Currently 200 gardeners maintain 80 flowerbeds along the B & A Trail. And we have a waiting list of people who want to join the program. We also have a Co-Adopt system. Businesses or civic organizations are teamed with a garden volunteer. Plants and materials are supplied by the organization, the labor and love are supplied by the volunteer. Each flowerbed has engraved markers identifying the Eagle Scout who built the flowerbed, the volunteer who maintains the bed, and the Co-Adopt organization that has donated plants to the flowerbed.
We have further expanded the Adopt-A-Flower bed program to volunteers in wheelchairs. We have found that our special population visitors have become some of our most productive volunteers with the addition of a raised flowerbed. This design allows easy access by wheelchair bound gardeners to all points in the flower bed for planting, weeding, and other maintenance.
Trail Blazers -- Your Trail's Goodwill Ambassadors
The B & A Trail Blazers are our Trail's Good Will Ambassadors. They are a group of 40 trail enthusiasts who have completed a thorough training program with the Park Rangers. Their main focus is public safety and visitor assistance. To become a Trail Blazer each member must become certified in American Red Cross Advanced First Aid and CPR. They also ride a minimum of three bike patrol rides with a Park Ranger and they become familiar with the basics of park operations and public relations. While on the trail, Trail Blazers agree to obey all the park rules, the safety instructions, and the visitor ethics. They also assist the public when necessary, and act as extra eyes and ears for the Park Rangers. When they are on patrol they agree to set a good example for our visitors.
We have reaped quite a harvest of benefits from our Trail Blazers. They perform vital tasks at public programs and special events. They inspect the trail daily, assisting whenever called upon and reporting their observations to the Rangers. It is not uncommon for individual Trail Blazers to log thousands of patrol miles every year. One Trail Blazer was particularly instrumental in helping us reduce the number of user group conflicts on the B & A Trail. His idea for Safety Zone demonstration areas taught trail visitors six simple safety rules that eliminated many of the conflicts that developed between cyclists, pedestrians and equestrians. The Trail Blazers continue to monitor and maintain the Safety Zones, helping new or uninformed visitors use the trail safely.
Getting By With A Little Help from Your Friends
Each of the major park facilities in our county has a Friends organization. The mission of Friend's of the B & A Trail is to promote, protect and enhance the Trail. The Friends have 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service and are incorporated in Maryland. The creation of the Friend's of the B & A Trail established new opportunities to build the community into the trail.
The staff at the Trail carefully orchestrated the creation of the Friends. Our goal was to create an organization that would enjoy a unique relationship with the staff without attempting to competitively operate the facility. We have provided them with opportunities to raise funds, recruit members, and leave a legacy for future community leaders to follow.
We began with two parallel efforts. The first effort was to recruit leaders to serve on the board of directors. We decided to cast the net wide, not limiting ourselves to trail neighbors and user groups. We spent several months identifying and recruiting people with a broad perspective and fresh ideas. We sought out successful people, those who were accomplished in their professional and private lives. We looked for people who served on other boards in the past and understood boardsmanship and the healthy growth of organizations. Finally, we looked for people who had a vision for community stewardship. During the next fourteen months we built a core group of ten committed people and incorporated the Friends of the B & A Trail.
The second effort was completed simultaneously with the first. While we recruited board members, and with their input, the staff began to formulate the by laws and articles of incorporation to create and govern the organization, and to complete the forms required for the organization's 501 (c)(3) status. We later signed a Memo of Understanding with the Friends that defines our relationship, and a Concession License that allows them to raise funds by contracting with trail side vendors.
There are a number of benefits available to the managing agency when they partner with a Friends organization. In their role as protectors of the Trail, the friends can become an effective lobbying organization. The Friends of the B & A Trail have twice prevented large public works projects from overwhelming trail property. As the trail's promoters, they have become politically adept, recruiting support for the facility among many of the elected and appointed decision-makers in our county. In their enhancement role the Friends are able to obtain grants and raise funds for a wide variety of trail improvement and enhancement projects.
A Friends organization that has a positive relationship with the managing agency offers a number of benefits to the community. By joining as members, citizens can understand their responsibilities as of stewards of the Trail. They get the opportunity to proactively love and care for the Trail they own. They can also make direct donations of funds or materials and receive tax benefits for their generosity. Our volunteer organizations also benefit. The Friends manage the accounts of our trail volunteer organizations when they raise funds for equipment or projects. This eliminates the need for each group to acquire tax exempt status and combines all of the accounting into one budget. Together, the staff, the volunteers, and the Friends can maintain their focus on building positive programs in the community and serving our citizens.
When you "Build the Community into the Trail" you will build strong bonds of cooperation and collaboration between private citizens and public officials. The synergy formed between the two, and the resulting benefits to the community overwhelm any effort required to create the programs. Your initial investment will reward you handsomely over the long term.
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Updated March 16, 2007