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Lessons from Verenika

I have a new event to add to my list of favorites, but it doesn’t have a name. It involves about 200 volunteers from 15 churches spending a day making about 20,000 verenika for the Mennonite Relief Sale. Learning about it was fascinating, seeing it happen a humbling delight.

But it needs a name, something catchy. Verenikafest? That’ll do for this column.

A Newton bakery took over production last year, but the volunteers were back at it and Verenikafest was in full swing Tuesday, according to one the 47th year it’s happened.

One reason Verenikafest went away, explained one of the members of the “old” committee, is that volunteers are getting harder to come by. Committee members themselves were older, sicker, and dwindling in number. Younger people who once swelled the number of volunteers aren’t as available today. Fewer live on farms, with the flexibility to take a day off, and more are employed, either reluctant to use a vacation day or unable to be excused from work. It made sense, the committee thought, to hire the work out.

The description should sound painfully familiar to election officials, emergency responders, and local governance, for the same issues trouble them. One day we may see longer lines at fewer polling places, or longer response times in emergencies. The idea of full-time EMTs has been floated about — hiring the service out. And local governance took a hit this election cycle — 20 write-ins won seats, most in races without a single registered candidate.

So why did Verenikafest make a comeback this year? I’m told many felt, and I’m paraphrasing liberally here, that service was at the heart of Verenikafest. Adult children of longtime volunteers were integral to forming a “new” organization to revive and preserve the legacy of service and charity of their parents. A younger generation, working with the old, gave the event new life.

You’ll see some of the same happening with county fire departments and ambulance crews, young mixed with old, though finding new volunteers is always a challenge. We’re darned lucky for the ones we have. As for election poll workers? There seems to be less incentive for younger folk there — guaranteed 12-hour days aren’t a big selling point, but the need is no less important to a right we should hold dear (recent election turnout of 14 percent aside). More and more people shy away from the responsibilities shouldered by mayors, city council, and school board members.

What is it that could work a Verenikafest-like revival in these other critical volunteer services? How do you find people willing to embrace compromise in their lives for the mere satisfaction of service?

It all comes back to matters of the heart, of having concern for others greater than for one’s self. How do you build that, how do you sustain it? If I had the answers, I wouldn’t be asking the questions.

— David Colburn

Last modified April 16, 2015

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