Viability of local events threatened by dearth of volunteers

By Christie Vogt

The shortage of volunteers to serve in neighborhood nonprofits and community groups has been a longstanding issue, says Julie Drechsler, executive director of the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation.

Recognizing this need, the foundation awarded grants in 2023 to the Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ) and St. Anthony Park District 12 Community Council to support volunteer engagement and management.

“We have a long history of dedicated volunteers that service St. Anthony Park in a variety of ways, and they are vital to our community,” Drechsler said.

While the grant project is still in its initial stages, stakeholders were set to begin convening in December to identify volunteer needs and develop a shared approach. Participants include representatives from the foundation, CEZ, 4th in the Park Committee, St. Anthony Park Arts Festival, the library and the Park Bugle.

Meanwhile, community leaders continue to sound the alarm that the sustainability of these events depends on neighbors stepping into volunteer roles.

The Arts Festival, for example, was nearly canceled in 2023.

“They could not find a director, and someone threw my name out,” Anna Gaseitsiwe said. “They came and asked me, and I said, ‘Well, if the alternative is we’re not going to have it, then yes, I’ll take it on.’” Gaseitsiwe is also the owner of The Makery, a creative design studio in St. Anthony Park.

The 4th in the Park celebration has also struggled to fill leadership roles. Colleen Healy, a 4th in the Park Committee member and longtime St. Anthony Park resident, said the committee is always looking for new members, but it’s “hard to find the worker bees who are willing to meet monthly and put in that time to make it happen.”

Some committee members have been serving for over a decade and would like to “pass on the baton,” she said, but there is no one willing to pick it up for the next leg.

4th in the Park is the only Fourth of July parade in St. Paul and one of the longest-running parades in Minnesota, having celebrated its 76th event in 2023. The Arts Festival, now in its 55th year, is also a longstanding neighborhood tradition.

Despite being loved and appreciated by the community, events like the Arts Festival and 4th in the Park are “very fragile,” Gaseitsiwe said.

Both events are run entirely by volunteers, and while day-of volunteers aren’t as difficult to find, it has been a significant challenge to secure people for planning committees and leadership positions that require a longer commitment.

In addition to planning the Arts Festival, for example, committee members are tasked with raising funds to put on the event each year. Many people assume the library funds the festival — a misconception that has hindered the group’s fundraising efforts, Gaseitsiwe said.

“The whole purpose of the festival,” she explains, “is to be a fundraiser for the library. What happens every year is that because we have to raise all the money to put the festival on, we then essentially spend all the money we raised from the previous year to put on the next year’s festival.”

The annual Saint Anthony Park Library Branch Association Book Sale, which takes place at the same time as the festival, is another event that needs volunteer help, Gaseitsiwe added.

“If we don’t have people in the community stepping up to fill these roles, then these traditions, these beloved events … they’re not going to happen,” Gaseitsiwe says. With increased awareness of the issue, Gaseitsiwe hopes more people will come forward to participate.

“One thing that makes St. Anthony Park so special,” Healy reflected, “is that people know each other here. I know every single person up and down my street. Being involved in neighborhood events and being involved in the place you live enhances relationships between neighbors. I just think it makes it more enjoyable to all work on a project together and then just see it come to fruition.” 

Christie Vogt is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Bugle.

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