– W.A. Ewing
We are in the midst of National Volunteer Week, which is being observed this year from last Sunday through this coming Saturday, April 22. Established in 1974, the week is designed to celebrate how invaluable deeds of kindness through volunteering actually better American communities and the world in general. It also provides an opportunity to say thank you. But as well, it challenges communities to tap into even deeper resources, and individuals to look for ways to be active in service and change.
National Volunteer Week is organized in the U.S. by the Points of Light Foundation, whose mission is “to inspire, equip, and mobilize people to take actions that change the world.” If “Points of Light” sounds familiar, you are remembering President George H.W. Bush’s January 1989 speech to the nation and volunteers, calling on them to become “a thousand points of light.” The Points of Light Foundation was founded shortly thereafter in 1990.
In any event, the week’s observance presents an appropriate time to acknowledge volunteers in Custer County, where countless people go about supporting needs and services for residents and visitors in innumerable, quiet ways. Rarely generating headlines, volunteers see to staffing and serving massive elements within the county’s human infrastructure. We look here at only four of the many services dependent on local volunteers: the West Custer County Library, Custer County Search and Rescue, Custer County Community Sharing Center, and Custer County Recycles.
It seems impossible to imagine our community without the Library, and, according to Administrative Co-Director Janet Rhodes, “None of the fun stuff would happen here without volunteers, particularly the  Friends of the West Custer County Library. The Friends put on the semi-annual Craft Fair that raises funds to support the library’s programs, book budget, courier (inter-library loan), and the software that powers the library catalog system, film streaming service, and hotspots…a huge contribution! While the library’s mil levy pays for keeping the doors open (heat/water/staff etc.), the Friends of the Library are the heartbeat.” She points out as well that the Friends manage the library’s volunteer shelvers, make posters, write an annual newsletter that doubles as a recruitment and signup tool, and are the library’s main fundraising arm. Still other volunteers, including the entire Board of Trustees, advocate tirelessly for the library’s mission to enhance lifelong learning, knowledge, growth and technology for all, help with youth programming and the extensive Summer Reading Program. Some of the recurring programs for young people are run by volunteers who show up week after week. Rhodes concludes by simply noting that “you could truthfully say that without volunteers, the lights would be on but nobody would be home.”
The Library is an instance where a paid professional staff is supplemented by volunteers. Search and Rescue, on the other hand, is a necessary and all-volunteer non-profit organization that works under the county sheriff. According to Cindy Howard, volunteer since 2007 and current Public Information Officer, the roster today has “approximately 40 volunteers”, and is “made up of ground, technical, and ATV team members, as well as our STEP [helicopter hover exit, requiring extensive training and yearly certification] qualified technical team members, a dedicated subgroup… Many of our members have medical qualifications of EMR, EMT and higher, and we have several operations and administrative personnel.” SAR is engaged in about 20 missions a year, and is on call 24/7/365. These volunteer folks do make headlines when the wilderness lost or injured are found and returned, and are always modest when recognized. Howard does note that SAR has “a strong need for very experienced alpine and technical climbers on the team, individuals who live in or adjacent to Custer County, and have good availability to respond.” Go to custersar.org/new-members to inquire about joining the team. Preventative SAR educational activities are also conducted as part of the groups’ commitment to highlight the risks in the technical mission response areas served.
While SAR volunteers are saving lives, another totally volunteer non-profit, Custer County Community Sharing Center, efficiently goes about serving residents experiencing food scarcity, usually in the vicinity of 500 households a month. According to CEO/Manager Carol Ault, herself of course a volunteer, more than 60 volunteers individually donate over 36 hours a month to help accomplish the Center’s mission to address local food needs. “These volunteers,” she says, “are the heart of the Custer County Community Sharing Center. Our gratitude is endless, and we depend on these volunteers to further our mission of realizing a hunger free community.” With pandemic related relief programs coming to an end, new need has arisen, and additional volunteers are welcome; contact Ault at 719-783-3303 or 719-285-5640 to become a part of the Center staff.
The non-profit Custer County Recycles (CCR) works hand-in-hand with Custer County to reduce landfill waste, having successfully completed a grant funded building project at that site, the Joannie Liebman Recycling Center. Their program and contact information is handily stated at custercounty-co.gov/recycling.
According to Stephen Tappe, Volunteer Coordinator, currently 29 volunteers, almost half of whom are part-time residents, work with two part-time county employees in hauling, sorting, baling, and storing recyclables. Tappe adds, “Custer County Recycling would not function without them.” Tim Harmon, CCR Manager, notes that in the last six months these volunteers have contributed 394 hours of labor and service to the program. “Our volunteers are outstanding and much appreciated,” Harmon says; “Custer County is fortunate to have such a fine group of people giving their time and energy working together to drastically reduce the amount of material entering the landfill.”
The aforementioned Joanie Liebman, longtime driving force of local recycling, wraps up the realty of volunteer services quite well: “It’s amazing how much difference a little bit of time volunteering can make for both the volunteer and who they are helping…[V]olunteers in Custer County understand this… you can’t help but notice their pride, commitment, camaraderie and sense of fulfillment. These volunteers are essential…” She ends her comments by quoting Sherry Anderson, a quote that is also printed on the Community Sharing Center north wall: “Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.”
There you have it: human literacy and knowledge, life, diet and nutrition, and the diminishment of the cost and reality of waste in our immediate community, all sustained by volunteer efforts. And we have only touched on a sample of the many volunteer supported services here in the Valley.
Finally, a quote from an unknown source, much referred to by several volunteer services in the county: “Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” Hundreds of “priceless” Custer County volunteers have helped shape the community we enjoy.
So, in addition to shouting out “Thank you!” during National Volunteer Week, we can add, “We wouldn’t be who we are privileged to be in Custer County without you!”
– W.A. Ewing