Live United: Where’s the next generation of people to carry the torch?

Published 8:45 pm Friday, June 14, 2024

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Live United by Erin Haag

Erin Haag

We have a veteran that visits the pantry. At 93 years old, he’s shared his story with us. He tells me, “I’ve told you this before, haven’t I?” I tell him yes, and he’ll say, “Well, you’re gonna hear my story again because it’s a good one, so I keep telling it.” He proudly speaks of his service, and of his time volunteering in the community, leading a successful yearly event that is nearly 40 years old. He had a cause that was near and dear to his heart, and by golly, he was going to give his time to make sure this event was going to help. Last week, he stopped in the doorway. I waited to hear what quip he was going to come out with, but instead he broke out into song, in a surprisingly strong voice. He treated us to a full rendition of “God Bless America.” When he finished with “Home sweet home,” we applauded him. He then looked at me, and then his quip came. “Usually when people start clapping like that it’s to shut me up and get me out the door.” I laughed and helped him out the door to go home to his beloved wife. He is well admired at our pantry — staff and volunteers alike appreciate his humor, his positive outlook and his commitment to our country and our community.

Recently, a trusted colleague provided a listening ear as I sorted through some issues. We chose to get outside, sitting down at a picnic table down by the splash pad with a view of the lake. We talked about the challenges of finding board members, not just for United Way, but for every organization that relies on a board or council for their operations. Service clubs are struggling for membership, wondering if there’ll be a new generation of members to carry on the work. Parent teacher organizations struggle to find volunteers for book fairs and carnivals for our students. Even peer support groups are dwindling. Just nine short years ago, I joined MOPS, a moms group. There were over a hundred moms that gathered in a room each month. We built friendships, strong ties that carry through to today. I’ve watched the group shrink down to about 20 women, and I cried when they held their last meeting. People are just too busy. My colleague wondered, “What are they so busy with?” She talked about how her parents belonged to the PTA and boards or committees. As a mom of two kids that love to be involved, to play sports, the same thing is happening to our community sports. Trying to find coaches for our local ball teams, hockey players, judges for 4-H, parents willing to work concessions at the robotics competition — I can’t think of a single place that isn’t looking for more help, more volunteers, more support. I looked through the history of United Way, and I realize that there were entire committees of 20-30 people, raising money and awareness. Where are those people today? Where is the next generation of leaders, of champions, people to carry the torch? It’s not just volunteering though. It’s taking that leadership role. Being willing to learn and lead others, be a committed volunteer or to take on a learning role of being a board chair, board treasurer or run for the school board. Over and over, we hear the same message. People are just too busy.

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It’s true. People are busy. As I write this, my son is sleeping on the couch beside me, worn out from playing hard yesterday. It’s early morning, and he came down to hang out with his mama, and promptly fell back asleep. We spent four to five nights a week on a ball field somewhere. There’s always an invitation somewhere. Community Education classes, 4-H club, FCA camp and play parks. I work hard to protect their time at home, too, even when that means turning down something. They need sleepy mornings on the couch, homemade popsicles on the front porch and days trying to train their chickens to walk on a leash. Yes, that’s a real thing that is happening here, and I am all for it.

There’s an entire movement of having better life/work balance, of learning to be unbusy, of focusing on the family. I wonder exactly what this means though. This isn’t a “back in my day” thing, because in many ways, it’s the same old story. I hear an old hockey coach talk about how hard it was to find volunteers 20 years ago. Heads nod and agreement is echoed in the group he’s chatting with. Same thing for baseball, for swimming, for church groups. It’s not entirely different, but there’s a different nuance to it. People are still “so busy” but it’s a little different kind of busy. Not more or less, just different.

There are amazing leaders in our community, volunteers who dedicate their time in multiple arenas. At my own office, there are volunteers who know our work inside out. They’re there three to four days a week, dedicating their time, providing leadership and insight on how to improve things. We couldn’t do the work we do without them, and I appreciate them every single day. I’ve written about the importance of diversification of revenue. It’s a smart business practice. This is another area that we need diversification. As much as I value these regular volunteers leading the way, I want to ensure that there’s a new cohort ready to lead, or even to give others a break. When it’s the same faces, same hands every time … well, eventually there’s going to be a gap. Vacations happen, surgeries happen, priorities change.

We’re facing a gap right now. Semcac’s Meals to Go is looking for three to four drivers for their routes. United Way is doing homebound deliveries for seniors once a month, and we’re looking for additional volunteers willing to deliver. We’ve been asked to add a few more seniors to our list, and we would love to meet that need, but can’t do so without volunteers. I’m also looking for a couple people comfortable with computers — if someone’s comfortable with email, that’s the level we look for. We’re hoping to find someone to train on registration for the Welcome Pantry. Of course, we also have board member openings, or committees to join. Once a month, once a week, just for the summer … whatever your commitment is, we’d welcome you. Help us keep the torch going. Help us show a new generation what it means to prioritize some of the busy time to give back to our community. If you’re lucky, you’ll get treated to a concert from a veteran, with the jokes on the side.

Give our office a call at 507-373-8670 or visit our website at

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.