The North Fork’s ongoing struggle to find volunteers continues

04/14/2016 6:00 AM |

North Fork volunteers

In December, Bill Toedter, a longtime environmental advocate and president of the North Fork Environmental Council, announced he would be stepping down from the position to move to Arizona.

But as of this month, Mr. Toedter is still in charge of the Mattituck organization.

The group, he said, can’t seem to find someone to dedicate the time to replace him.

“No one’s stepped up,” he said. “We’ve tried to chat with several people, but some people don’t want that commitment of time.”

The shortage of active volunteers has forced NFEC to consider taking drastic action to entice more people to donate their time. Next month, the nonprofit group will meet to decide whether to “change its mission or direction,” Mr. Toedter said.

The problem isn’t limited to NFEC: Various nonprofit groups across the North Fork also have trouble finding residents to volunteer for their causes.

The reasons for the struggle aren’t clear.

Some blame an aging population that is simply unable to actively volunteer in physically demanding roles. Others cite increased competition between all the nonprofit groups vying for attention. Still others believe a fast-moving world and sour economy have led many adults and students to seek employment over volunteerism.

Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, another environmental advocacy organization, believes all those factors likely play a role.

“It all probably contributes somehow,” he said. “The challenge is to compete with other things people have to do … It’s a competition for time. It just seems like people are so busy all the time and I don’t really remember it being that way 20 years ago.”

Mr. Toedter, who has been president of NFEC for five years and a member for 12 years, said the group has already tried to make it easier for volunteers to join the board. NFEC reduced the frequency of its board meetings from once a month to once every other month.

“The landscape of volunteerism has changed quite a great deal over the last couple of decades,” Mr. Toedter said. “It’s harder to find those people who have the time and the drive to do that.”

The dearth of volunteers marks a precipitous decline for NFEC, which was formed in 1972 and — unlike many other groups — consists almost entirely of volunteers. The group’s board, once 10 members strong, now comprises just six volunteers after three people left due to health issues and one moved away after retiring.

Mr. DeLuca said NFEC has done “remarkable and amazing work and set the stage for environmental successes” on the North Fork. And despite the lack of volunteers, the group remains active and is exploring new ways of spreading its message of environmental conservation. On Sunday, April 24, NFEC will host an Earth Day 5K Run it hopes will become an annual event, Mr. Toedter said.

“We’ll use that to boost scholarship and education funds,” he said, adding that the group may even find new volunteers at the race.

Linda Ruland, executive director of the Greenport nonprofit Community Action Southold Town, said her organization has a “small band of very faithful volunteers” but recognizes that it’s tough for many to devote their time. She cited a poor economy as the reason fewer locals volunteer now as compared to decades ago.

“A lot of people, they need a job,” Ms. Ruland said. “There are a lot of people that just can’t volunteer. They need to be out in the workforce … The older population, the retired people, are the ones who really carry us as volunteers.”

Ms. Ruland said CAST, which stocks a food pantry for needy residents and funds education programs for local children, will try to accommodate volunteers who can only work certain hours. Lately, that scenario is becoming the norm.

“It’s really the same story with the other groups I’ve spoken with,” Ms. Ruland said. “A lot of parents didn’t work back then, but now they do. They have to.”

The Long Island Council of Churches is also having issues finding one or two additional volunteers to help staff its food pantry in Riverhead, said office manager Carolyn Gumbs.

“It’s very difficult right now because we’re looking for volunteers who can do a little bit of lifting,” she said. “Most of our retirees, they can only lift so much.”

Ms. Gumbs said she thinks a lack of public transportation in the area also limits who can volunteer.

“You’re not within walking distance unless you live right in the area,” she said.

While LICC struggles to find weekday volunteers, the organization’s large events — like its annual Thanksgiving dinner — are well-attended.

“They do come out and they do help,” Ms. Gumbs said. “Without them, we’d be in trouble.”

Mr. DeLuca believes it’s important for nonprofit groups and other volunteer organizations to plan events far in advance, saying that residents’ busy schedules make it hard for them to commit to weekly volunteerism.

“It’s tough to get even the most dedicated people to carve out a block of time,” he said. “With college students, we used to be able to get kids who had maybe half the summer to donate time. Now they’re all working.”

Mr. DeLuca lauded his group’s paid staff for helping to manage the organization’s day-to-day operations.

“For us, we’re certainly blessed to have a full-time professional staff, so that gives us time to get a handle on the issues,” he said.

Despite the challenge of finding active volunteers, Mr. DeLuca said he hasn’t seen a drop-off in the number of people interested in helping in some way. And when it comes to the North Fork’s youth, he’s more than optimistic.

Mr. DeLuca said organized groups of young people who volunteer en masse, like the NJROTC, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, have made a substantial impact at larger events, like beach cleanups and osprey tower installations.

“There are bright lights out there among the struggle,” he said.

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Photo: Group for the East End volunteers work on a nesting platform for ospreys in March 2012 at Goldsmith Inlet in Peconic. The group’s president believes residents’ busy schedules make it hard for them to commit to weekly volunteerism. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo, file)

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