Just an hour a day?

Published 9:56 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2009

With the passing of one final check on Tuesday, the Bennett’s Creek Ruritan Club ceased to be.

Nearly 40 years after it was founded to raise money for — and interest in — a rescue squad to serve what was then a largely rural area in northern Nansemond County, the community service organization has died for a lack of interest by potential new members.

With a membership of just 20, and many of them well into their senior years, there just was not enough energy to continue the club’s normal activities, according to members. So, on Tuesday the club wrote and presented its last check — $1,000 to the Salvation Army — thereby clearing its bank account.

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The problems of the Bennett’s Creek club are familiar to just about anyone who’s involved in a church or volunteer organization — a small percentage of members often does the vast majority of the work.

In fact, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service, the trend is a national one. Although volunteer rates as of 2007 were down more than 2.5 percentage points from their peak during 2005 — the year that Hurricane Katrina shattered much of the Gulf Coast — the average number of hours a typical volunteer puts into his cause stayed flat for the same period. With the current economic crisis resulting in higher demands on community-service organizations, it’s a good bet that the hours-per-volunteer figure will continue to rise.

There are many theories for the decline in Americans’ commitment to community service. Is it a function of the Me Generation’s devotion to itself at the expense of a vision for others? Is it a matter of time being such a precious commodity in this age of computers and mobile phones? Can it be blamed on the decline of communities in the sense that many adults remember them — places where neighbors didn’t just wave and say hello, but also grilled on the patio together, babysat each other’s children and actually paid attention to one another’s needs?

It’s likely that each possibility plays some part in the decline of volunteerism. But one arresting observation from a 2008 study by the Corporation for National & Community Service could be even more pertinent: Those who describe themselves as recent volunteers watch about 15 hours of television in a week, compared to 23 hours for non-volunteers. That’s a difference of about 436 hours a year — more than 10 weeks worth of full-time work.

Next time you hear a cry for help from the Salvation Army, the Ruritans, the United Way or any of the thousands of other local, state and national organizations that rely on volunteers to accomplish their goals, remember that statistic. Then ask yourself this question: Can’t I spare just one crime drama a day to help build my community?