Good neighbors

Pilot project in Randolph County promotes Latino volunteerism.

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. [07.06.04] — Promoting Latino volunteerism in the rural Randolph County communities of Franklinville and Liberty is the focus of a new effort that its backers hope can serve as a national model.

“We know people do informal volunteering all the time,” says Molly Keeney, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Greensboro, which is spearheading the local project. “People don’t call it volunteering. They just call it being a good neighbor.”

That insight is a lesson from a pilot project the center supported four years ago to boost volunteerism in two low-income, African-American neighborhoods in Greensboro.

In Ole Asheboro, which already was working to clean up prostitution and drug dealing, residents created “safe houses” in which people could stay during personal crises.

And in Eastside Park, residents established a pantry and after-school program in their homes.

A total of roughly 50 volunteers participated in the civic renewal projects in the two neighborhoods.

Building on that urban volunteerism initiative, one of a handful in the U.S. backed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore and the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C., the two foundations now have selected three pilot projects to develop and study rural volunteerism.

The local project is the only rural pilot focusing on volunteerism among Latinos, who represent 6.5 percent of Randolph County’s population and have increased their numbers 1,576 percent in the last 10 years.

Initial activities include working with a volunteer group in Liberty to find ways to encourage Latino parents to volunteer for the local Smart Start program for pre-schoolers, and working with a Latino mother’s group that meets twice a month in Franklinville.

While language can be a barrier, Latinos “do volunteer, especially where their children are concerned,” says Marilyn Holtham, a church consultant and retired educator who is overseeing the Randolph County project.

“Latinos are a very tight-knit community who extensively help each other,” she says. “I would like to see their family values modeled with the rest of the families in the county.”

Rather than “volunteering,” Keeney says, the idea of people helping people really should be called “neighboring,” a term coined by her husband, Russ, who runs the Randolph County Area Transportation system for elderly and disabled people.

“We know people do informal volunteering all the time,” she says. “We want to see what is in place, and then try to enhance what already may be in place.”

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