The other day, Jim Marpe was talking about volunteerism in Westport.
He should know. His paid gig is first selectman — after a long career as a senior partner in Accenture — but before his election, Marpe served this town in a wide variety of capacities.
He was a 2-term Board of Education member (including vice chair); chairman of the Westport Weston Family YMCA board of trustees; Homes With Hope and Westport Rotary Club board member, and president of Greens Farms Congregational Church.
Marpe is also an active member of the Y’s Men, League of Women Voters, Longshore Men’s Golf Association, Minuteman Yacht Club, Saugatuck Rowing Club, Senior Center and Near & Far Aid Spring Gala Committee.
His remarks about volunteering were made at the Westport Woman’s Club. For over 100 years, members have made their mark: laying sidewalks, greening the Post Road, initiating a visiting nurse service, pioneering classes for children with learning disabilities, organizing emergency food distribution, granting scholarships — the list is long and proud.
But volunteering takes work. And as Westport changes, the face of volunteerism does too.
Last week, I asked Marpe to expand on his speech at the Woman’s Club. The topic is important to him. He was eager to do so.
Marpe said that many long-standing membership organizations here are “more challenged” than they were just a decade or so ago. Quite simply, it’s harder to find helping hands.
Government bodies — elected and appointed town boards and commissions, from Education and Finance to the RTM and TEAM Westport — depend on volunteers too. Like clubs and organizations, they sometimes scramble.
But, Marpe said, at the same time there’s a great outpouring of volunteers for special projects.
The first selectman cited a recent “06880” story on the decrepit state of Sherwood Island’s 9/11 Memorial. Immediately, Westporters offered time and energy to clean it up. Some did it on their own; others joined a low-key but hard-working group called Friends of Sherwood Island.
Just in the previous few days, Marpe said, he’d seen scores of Westporters working hard at Lobster Fest, the Wakeman Town Farm Harvest Fest, and a food allergy and education walk.
Marpe pointed too to the many Westporters helping a Syrian refugee family adjust to the area, the numerous parents involved in children’s sports and arts activites, and Staples High School students who belong to groups like SLOBs (Service League of Boys).
“There’s still a volunteer spirit in town,” Marpe said. “But different things attract people today. They’re more willing to jump into short, defined activities, that have an end point.”
Town government service does not usually have an end (unless it’s the end of a term). Marpe admitted that there was a period when it was tough to find folks who would serve. But he thinks the pendulum is swinging back.
Recently, he said, 8 candidates interviewed for a vacancy on the Board of Finance. All were “very, very accomplished people.”
It’s not easy — particularly in these days of glaring social media — to ask men and women to “put themselves in the public eye,” Marpe said. “But in a town like ours, we rely on volunteers to make government work.”
Westport’s commitment to volunteerism remains strong, Marpe noted. In fact, he said, “we’re still in the forefront of communities where individuals give of themselves. Volunteers are the people who make Westport, Westport.”
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