Atlantic County is a suburban county in Northern New Jersey. The Regional Park System comprises of a number of parks throughout the county which are not within walking distance to most residences. We studied this volunteer program despite the suburban nature of the park system because it is a well developed program with lessons which transcend population density.
Over the past several years, the Atlantic County Park System has developed a successful volunteer program guided by the Assistant Park Superintendent, Cathy Smith, who has also taken on the duties of volunteer coordinator. Ms. Smith, who is aided by park naturalists on some volunteer activities, oversees approximately 45 regular volunteers who do a variety of activities to augment the abilities of the small park staff. The list of tasks taken on by volunteers of the Atlantic County Park System includes: assisting instructors in crafts and nature classes, assisting in the Nature Center, helping prepare for and run festivals and events, office duties such as assisting with bulk mailings. While the core group of volunteers provide a sufficient number of hands for regular park activities, there is a need for a large number of volunteers for special events, such as the annual Halloween Night of Horrors. For these kinds of events, Ms. Smith is able to rally several hundred volunteers at one time.
The Atlantic County Parks Department holds an annual recruitment session at the beginning of the year (usually February) which is advertised in the local paper. Prospective volunteers watch a slide show about the Park System and fill out two forms – a volunteer application form and an opportunity sheet. The forms are used to develop a profile of new volunteers. New volunteers are told that they are free to give exactly the amount of time they are comfortable giving, from one hour a year to many hours a week, but that once they commit to a certain job, they must show up.
Some volunteers call the office at other times of the year to participate, generally because family or friends are current volunteers or because they read about the volunteer program in the paper. These volunteers are sent copies of the application and volunteer opportunity sheet along with a form letter outlining the volunteer program. Once they return the forms, they are included on the list of volunteers.
Other volunteers are referred by the local volunteer center, which keeps a description of the Atlantic County Parks programs on file. The center often sends groups looking for a community service project to the parks. The center also places people sentenced to community service by the courts. The volunteer center sends the Parks Department a list of people who were referred to fulfill their service requirement, then the Parks Department sends each person on the list a form letter welcoming them along with a volunteer application. Most of these people only stay for part of their sentencing, but some stay longer. Ms. Smith noted that she has two dedicated volunteers who began as sentenced workers.
The local high school has adopted a community service requirement, which should have expanded the number of volunteer at the Atlantic County Parks. However, the city risk manager claims their are too many risks involved in allowing teenagers to work in the parks, so they have not been able to use the new pool of volunteers.
All current and potential volunteers receive a quarterly newsletter and listing describing the volunteer opportunities in the next quarter. Volunteers can call the office to register for any of the events. The office only contacts people to volunteer when enough people do not respond to the listing, which is rare. People are selected to be contacted based on the profiles developed from the forms they filled out when they became volunteers.
Ms. Smith has found that recognizing or rewarding volunteers is very important. Rewards take three forms: an annual volunteer banquet at which “volunteer of the year” is named and added to a plaque hanging in the park office, complementary admission to some events, and “volunteer dollars”. Volunteers earn one “volunteer dollar” for two hours of work after their first 50 hours. These dollars can be used for park events, T-shirts, and classes. Each quarterly newsletter also lists people who volunteered in the last quarter. In addition to rewarding volunteers individually, the park staff often submits names of park volunteers for awards given by other organizations.
Lessons from the Atlantic County Parks Department
Ms. Smith offered some advice for groups that are just starting to develop a volunteer program:
- Don’t take volunteers for granted. It is important to encourage volunteers and let them know the park needs them.
- Recognize that a volunteer’s time is valuable and to never leave a volunteer sitting around without anything to do.
- Do not overwhelm volunteers. Cathy Smith found that some of her volunteers are very dedicated to the park system and will do as much as they are asked, so it is her responsibility to make sure not to ask too much.
- Don’t give up or get discouraged if the turnout it low, initially; volunteer programs generally take a while to build up.
The Atlantic County Parks project was started approximately 6 to 7 years ago. For more information, please contact:
Assistant Park Superintendent
Atlantic County Parks
109 State Highway 50
Mays Landing, NJ 08330