September 25, 2019

Volunteers Make an Impact

Bob Sorge

Andy Davey head shot

I’ve been thinking a lot about volunteering lately. Perhaps not surprisingly – volunteering is a valuable gift to any nonprofit – and using philanthropic resources effectively and efficiently is always on my mind in one way or another. It goes with the territory. More recently, I’ve been thinking more specifically about what it means to volunteer, and what it looks like to make an impact.

Volunteering is important to many Americans. In 2017, 77.34 million adults volunteered through an organization, putting in nearly 6.9 billion hours.* In Wisconsin, more than 1.7 million volunteers contributed 164.3 million hours of service. The Independent Sector estimates that volunteer service was worth $3.9 billion to Wisconsin organizations. That’s a big impact.

I have been thinking about this in part because we have been considering a variety of ways to support MCF staff in their volunteer interests. But the subject is mainly on my mind because of some people I have been rubbing elbows with lately. Not only have they had an immense impact on our community through their volunteer efforts, but they also inspire others – including my wife Lisa and me – to do the same.

A Lifetime of Public Service

Bill Lunney and Judie Pfeifer are two of the people I find inspiring. As I write this blog, I’m preparing some comments for a party tonight celebrating Bill’s 50 years of service to Dane County – the last 30 of which have been as Dane County Parks Commission Chair. 50 years is a long time. In fact, 50 years ago I was two, and Neil Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the moon.

Under Bill’s leadership (and together with many other volunteers and Dane County staff), our county parks system grew from 3,500 acres to 15,000 acres. Bill and Judie were instrumental in establishing the Foundation for Dane County Parks; Bill has been President of the Friends of Wisconsin Parks; he has served the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and Groundswell Conservancy as well.

Not surprisingly, Bill and Judie are also generous with their financial resources (they are Fundholders and Legacy Society members of MCF). To give you an idea of Bill’s impact, former Governor Jim Doyle is slated as one of many to honor him at tonight’s event. And Judie has been there every step of the way – an equal force for good in her own right.

Demonstrating to Others That Someone Cares

The other volunteers who have been on my mind lately are John and Shwuli Sobotik. My wife and I are big cheerleaders for our public schools. Our sons are both Memorial High School grads who have pursued completely different paths. If ACT scores; hands-on technical capabilities; natural comfort with people of different racial, economic, ethnic and sexual identities; and strength of character are outcomes of a strong high school experience then, immodestly, Memorial served our sons very well.

Last year John and Shwuli sent a note to our neighborhood through social media. They mentioned they had taken on a garden at Memorial and wondered whether anyone else was interested in doing the same. A handful of people expressed interest. What was interesting for us is that we’d been trying to get permission to do just that – work on the gardens – since 2007. And here we were in 2018 and John and Shwuli were doing it. I asked John about it and his response was something like, “Oh, well we just showed up one day and started pulling weeds. Want to join us?” Understatement of the year.  Former Superintendent Jen Cheatham dubbed the group “guerilla gardeners.”

When you drive by Memorial High on Gammon Road and notice all the flowers around the large garden that includes the flag pole, that’s the work of John and Shwuli. Or when you drop your kids off near the Field House and notice how nice things look around there, that’s John and Shwuli too. In fact, when you see every alcove on the front of the building mulched, and the tamed jungle by the band entrance – that too is thanks to John and Shwuli. How many kids do they have going to Memorial? Well none, anymore. They just care about our schools.

MMHD Garden before
Lisa working in the garden while her husband takes pictures. Notice the shovel, as we found the edge between the garden and the lawn. 
MMHD Garden after
Several months later, mulching after the first pass was done. Note the rock and plaque from the class of 1974, which we "found." 

Lisa and I took over one garden in May of 2018. It took us until September to make our first pass through it –one shovel at a time (before and after pictures below). So we can only imagine how much time the Sobotiks put into all of their gardens.

Some people might think a little gardening is quaint, but there’s a bigger purpose here. Every day thousands of people – kids, teachers, parents and guests – pass by these gardens. What message do they get? I can tell you. We first started talking about the gardens in 2007 because that’s when our foreign exchange student asked, shocked, on his first day of school at Memorial, “Doesn’t anybody care about this place?”

The kids and teachers may not consciously notice the gardens each day, but somewhere in their subconscious they do. They’re either reminded that people care about them and what they’re doing in that building, or they’re reminded that they don’t.

The positive impact of volunteers on our society is staggering – and Bill, Judie, John and Shwuli (and of course my wife, Lisa!) are simply a few whom I admire most.


* According to the 2018 Volunteering in America Report, published by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that leads service, volunteering and grant-making efforts in the United States.