Volunteers have become an essential cog in how Rappahannock works. Can the machine keep running?

By Randy Rieland

For Foothills Forum

It’s been said that Rappahannock runs on volunteers’ fumes.

There’s something to that. Starting with the more than 200 men and women on the rosters of the fire and rescue companies to the hundreds of others who tutor local students or stock shelves and unload trucks at the Food Pantry, volunteers have become an essential cog of the community.

In fact, you could make the case that they play an outsized role here, a place where the “young retired” have become a core demographic. Still largely fit and active, and without job and family demands on their time, they’ve become a valued asset in a county where keeping government expenses and local taxes low has long been a top priority.

The Series:
This is the second of a three-part series of reports.
Part 1 (Feb. 14): Volunteers have become and essential cog in how Rappahannock works. Can the machine keep running?
Part 2 (Feb. 28): As the county’s demographics and economy evolve, nonprofits like Rappahannock Benevolent Fund and the Child Care Learning Center are looking at what that means to their missions and how they can adjust.
Part 3 (March 14): Volunteer burnout is big challenge facing nonprofits. So is finding ways to bridge the community’s cultural gaps. Organizations like the Food Pantry and Lions Club can play a big role.

That’s fueled the notion that Rappahannock has a distinctly high level of volunteerism. But does it? Or is that mainly the perception of those immersed in nonprofit programs or fundraising activities? Also, how much of an impact do volunteers have on the local economy? And, how much are they helping those truly in need?

Which leads to another set of challenges facing anyone hoping to do good works here. How do you reach out to people too proud to seek help? Then, how do you gain their trust to coax them to begin talking about the crosses they’d rather bear alone? And how, in a community with an economic disparity that can widen a cultural divide, do you offer charity that doesn’t feel patronizing?

“Distrust of help is in the DNA here,” said Kathryn Treanor, a long-active volunteer who’s now Member Services Coordinator for Rapp at Home, the nonprofit dedicated to helping older county residents stay in their homes. “So much of the success of nonprofits is about garnering trust. It’s about having conversations. And then more conversations. You need to help people become more comfortable with a different way of helping.”

“This is what we do”

Rappahannock has long been a place where neighbors looked out for neighbors, whether it was to give a hand in picking apples or rounding up runaway cows or plowing snow blocking a long gravel driveway. Jennings “Jenks” Hobson, retired pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church, tells the story of a woman from a family relatively new to the community, who was killed in a traffic accident. “They hadn’t been here that long, but all these people started showing up at the home with food,” he said. “This is what we do.”

Amissville native and real estate agent Jan Makela shares those memories of times when people here instinctively came together to help neighbors get through troubles.

“When there’s been a need in this community, people have stuck together. When a home burned or maybe a family lost the breadwinner, everybody would rally around and help them,” she said. “I’ve watched that play out over and over and over in my lifetime.”

At the same time, neighborhood churches have, for many years, been the closest thing to local social services agencies, helping members of their congregations deal with financial, health or personal crises. “The churches here have been a key place for that, for building a sense of community, where you take care of the sick and people in need,” said Hobson. “If a church is doing its job, it’s always reaching out into the community.”

Rev. Jon Heddleston, longtime pastor of the Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church in Sperryville, agrees. “Churches have been the model for every social service that’s come along,” he said. “They fly under the radar in a thousand different ways. People in churches do all kinds of things for others in the community that people don’t realize.”

Churches have also played a pivotal role in one of Rappahannock’s first and more critical commitments to volunteerism — the staffing of its seven fire and rescue companies. Over the years, many of their members have been recruited within church congregations. “There’s always been this connection between the churches and the local fire and rescue departments,” Makela noted. “There’s a lot of overlap. People not affiliated with churches didn’t tend to join the fire departments.”

What’s the value of volunteers?

About 20 years ago, when she was volunteer coordinator for the Rappahannock County School District, Makela surveyed groups in Rappahannock to try to get a handle on the financial benefits of having an active volunteer community here. She determined that county residents contributed, without pay, a total of more than 1,000 hours of their time every month.

While acknowledging that realistically, the actual figure was higher, Makela used Virginia’s minimum wage at the time — $5.15 an hour — to place a value on the volunteers’ service. That resulted in a lowball estimate of more than $60,000 a year, which would be equivalent to about $90,000 in 2019.

Today, that figure would no doubt be appreciably higher, given that back then local nonprofits such as the Food Pantry, the Benevolent Fund and Rapp U didn’t exist, and Headwaters, the foundation that supports the school district with many volunteers, was still in its early days.

But it remains difficult to nail down the overall impact of volunteers in the county. For starters, you’re talking about a very fluid “workforce,” with people continually plugging in or dropping out. It’s also challenging to pinpoint how many Rappahannock residents are actually volunteering because a lot are involved with more than one organization.

Additionally, while the commitment of fire and rescue volunteers has clearly saved the county a lot of money over the years, it’s hard to estimate how much, since county officials have yet to take a close look at the budget implications of shifting to an emergency services system with at least some paid workers. More broadly, the financial value of charitable work can be tough to assess because it tends to involve a wide range of “jobs” — from responding to emergency calls to spending months planning a fundraiser to driving folks to medical appointments to helping park cars at an event.

There are, however, some data that reflect the notable influence of volunteers and nonprofits here. According to the website Tax Exempt World, Rappahannock is currently home to 98 nonprofits, which equates to one for every 75 residents. That ranks fifth in nonprofits per capita among Virginia’s 95 counties. Here’s another indication of the sizeable footprint of nonprofits here: With the addition of a handful of new ones in the past decade, the total annual revenue of the seven fire and rescue companies and the 10 largest local charitable organizations now comes close to $3.5 million, based on data compiled from Tax Exempt World.

A different kind of nonprofit

The first signs of a shift in the means of local charity came in the late 1950s, with the launch of a chapter of Lions Club International. The Rappahannock Lions was then, and remains today, a grassroots organization, but with a broader community service approach, rather than responding to the pressing personal needs of church members. It focused on helping groups in the county, such as 4-H clubs and sports teams, or Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Eagle Scouts. In time, it also began offering free vision and hearing tests for Rappahannock children, and providing eyeglasses for kids who need them.

More foreshadowing of a changing culture came in the 1970s after Sursum Corda, a small private pre-school opened in the basement of a building in the Town of Washington. It would evolve into the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC) and expand its mission to include daycare and after-school and summer programs for kids between three weeks and 12 years old. It also would become a model and training ground for a different kind of volunteerism, one shaped by a nonprofit organization committed to a single purpose — in this case, childhood education.

“The needs of the community began to change and a group of people began to surface who came here from places where they had been volunteers and involved with nonprofits,” said retired philanthropic consultant Bill Dietel. Dietel’s wife Linda was a longtime member of the CCLC board and chaired the fundraising campaign that enabled it, in 1986, to build its current home on Route 211 just west of Washington. “There was a critical number of people with experience with nonprofits and an understanding of what they could do. They had an optimism about what they could accomplish. And the people who were involved in that have popped up in volunteer organizations for the next 40 years all over the county.”

That includes the formation of Headwaters in 1997, a nonprofit foundation that sprouted from the humble beginnings of what was known as the First Thursday Education Support Group. Started by a handful of public school parents, its goal was not only to stimulate more community engagement with the school district, but also to find ways to help teachers by integrating volunteers into the learning process. Now, more than 150 volunteers typically participate, for instance, as students’ mentors in Headwaters’s Starfish program or as part of its After-School Enrichment or Farm-to-Table programs.

Headwaters is a prime example of how volunteerism and the role of nonprofits in Rappahannock has evolved into a more structured and sharply focused model taking on complicated issues, such as childhood illiteracy.

“Headwaters has a whole panoply of programs that must be managed,” said Jim Blubaugh, who has been an active volunteer with the Rappahannock Lions Club and other organizations during his 40 years in the county. “They’re dealing with things like how they address the institutional problem of illiteracy at the second-grade level. It’s not like the Lions saying, ‘Okay, we’ll help the Boy Scouts.’

“So, everything has changed a lot,” he added. “And, over a period of time, various functions that most people would have considered something taxes would pay for, have, little by little, been covered by nonprofits.”

But the truth is that growth of Headwaters and the nonprofits that have taken root during the past 20 years has been tied to the infusion of wealth that’s come with the migration of retirees. “Most importantly, for a rural community like this, there’s money here,” said Bill Dietel. “Big money.”

Filling the pipeline?

For many in the community, becoming a volunteer is a way to weave themselves into the fabric of the place they’ve chosen to live out their lives. “One of the things I tell people who move out here and wonder if they’re going to have trouble meeting people is to volunteer,” said Blubaugh, “All you have to do is volunteer, and all of a sudden you’ll find yourself in a network of dozens of people.”

As CCLC’s executive director for 25 years, Rose Ann Smythe spent a lot of time working with volunteers. She appreciates why they do it. “As people age, they’re still looking for a sense of worth,” she said. “They don’t want to spend a lot of time in meetings listening to people talk. They want to do.”

But there’s the “fumes” part of the volunteer experience. Burnout isn’t unusual, particularly for those who offer their services for multiple causes. And, as with so many matters in Rappahannock these days, time is taking its toll. Volunteers simply age out. It might be drivers who no longer trust themselves to transport people to medical appointments in another county. Or aging firefighters anxious at the prospect of not being able to carry someone out of a burning building.

It’s a process that can play out in prosaic ways. Take the example of the Lions Club’s big yellow and white tent. It’s a familiar site at events in the county; last year it was set up a dozen times, most often for nonprofit fundraisers, at no cost. But erecting the tent is no small job.

“It’s heavy,” Blubaugh said. “It takes six guys to put up that tent. And I only have 12 guys in the Lions who are strong enough to do it. And one just had open-heart surgery. He’s 82.”

Or consider that the average age of the crewmembers who have done the heavy lifting in setting up the “Taste of Rappahannock” fundraiser is about 70. That includes two men who did a lot of climbing up and down ladders. Their combined age is a bit shy of 150.

It’s the sobering reality of a slice of the community that doesn’t just provide emergency care, but also free rides, home repairs for elderly widows, and eye exams and scholarships for kids. The question that hangs over all of it: How do you sustain the volunteer pipeline?

“Think what this community would look like if there weren’t volunteer services,” said Dot Lessard, who was on the Headwaters board for six years. “Think of what goes away without volunteers. Think of what goes away if you don’t have what the Lions Club does or what Headwaters does.

“I don’t know that everyone takes a moment to think about that.”

Answering the Call

Skye Kirchman didn’t have second thoughts about going on emergency runs around Rappahannock County.

“No, it was like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do,’” she said.

In fact, Kirchman was so sold on the idea of becoming a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT) that she got her high school classmate, Mikayla Johnson, to join her. Now, they are two of the more active EMTs answering calls for the Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Squad.

The pair are a welcome addition to the band of active fire and rescue volunteers here, a group that’s clearly aging. About 54 percent of those who answer more than 10 percent of the calls in the county are older than 50. But now almost 40 percent of the 34 women on the seven volunteer fire and rescue rosters here are under 40.

It didn’t take much convincing for Johnson to join her friend at the Sperryville station. “I’ve grown up around it because my dad was a volunteer firefighter in the county,” she said, “When Skye joined, I thought that was pretty cool. So, instead of going to a four-year college, I put in an application to become an EMT here.”

Kirchman actually started riding along with rescue crews while still a high school senior and began taking EMT courses soon after she graduated. Now 19, she tries to run as many calls as she can when she’s not working at the Happy Camper store in Sperryville. So does Johnson, also 19, who works two days a week as a paid EMT in Fairfax County.

However, Johnson said that if the county did start to pay at least some of its fire and rescue workers, she doesn’t think she’d be interested. “I’ve spent my whole life in Rappahannock. If it’s going to be a career, I’d like to do it somewhere else.”

Not that she doesn’t love making rescue runs here. “The hardest part is missing calls,” she said. “I hate missing calls.”

Kirchman feels the same way. She joked that “you have to have a little bit of the ‘I’m here to save the day’ complex to ride with the rescue squad. She said that a lot of people tell her that they couldn’t handle the stress of emergency calls. “Most of the calls we run actually aren’t that stressful,” she said. “When they are, they can be very stressful. But that’s maybe one or two calls a week.”

Both women say it can be frustrating when people who need hospital care refuse to go. Kirchman said it also can be hard to get out of bed when a call comes in the middle of the night. “But a lot of times I’m up anyhow because I’m a teenager,” she said.

Kirchman even convinced her dad, Paul, to become an ambulance driver for the Sperryville station. Not long ago, he answered his 50th call.

“It’s a pretty cool father-daughter thing to do,” she said, “but I try not to mention that my dad is driving.”

The Godmother of Nonprofits

“We are never really happy until we try to brighten the lives of others.” — Helen Keller

By Bob Hurley

For Foothills Forum

If there is a gene in our DNA linked to the desire to help others, Linda Dietel has it.

Since arriving here 38 years ago with her husband Bill, she has had an impact on the lives of many in the Rappahannock community.

Linda Remington was born into a Rochester, N.Y., family with a deep social conscience — her grandfather was a national leader in efforts to help the deaf, and her mother was involved in community programs to support the sick and elderly. Bill, her husband of nearly 68 years — “It took me four years to convince her to marry me!” — said she eschewed material trappings and instead “was always a lot more interested in people in need than herself.”

As a young woman, Linda became involved with a nonprofit group that promoted economic development and housing for low-income residents in Troy, N.Y., and later served as president of the board of trustees for her alma mater, the Emma Willard School, the nation’s oldest secondary school for women. She soon began developing her skills as an organizer with a talent for recruiting and mentoring future leaders.

Fast forward to 1981. Linda and Bill came to Rappahannock and bought Over Jordan Farm near Flint Hill. Their kids were grown, Bill was traveling often, and Linda wanted to raise sheep. But it wasn’t long before her lifelong interests in children and education led her to get involved with a small Rappahannock pre-school, Sursum Corda, the forerunner of the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC). “We began with just a handful of kids and now we are serving over 90 — almost 100 percent growth,” said Lisa Pendleton, CCLC program director. “We could have never achieved this success rate without Linda’s vision and tireless commitment to this organization.”

In the early 1990’s, Linda turned her attention to the public schools and formed a group of like-minded mothers, known as the First Thursday Education Support Group. She applied her knowledge of private foundations toward the formation of Headwaters — one of the first public education foundations in Virginia — and she served as its first board chair. Jane Bowling-Wilson, the former executive director of Headwaters and now heading up the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation, worked with Linda in both jobs. “She was a phenomenal mentor,” said Wilson. “A pivotal player in building Rappahannock nonprofits, Linda’s knowledge and insight into the philanthropic world, and her willingness to share her expertise, certainly helped shape my career, and many others as well.”

But Linda’s interest in helping others extended beyond education. She formed a caregivers group in 2010 that still meets twice monthly to support those with loved ones suffering from some form of dementia and other age-related illnesses. “Having been a caregiver herself, Linda well knew of the difficulties and challenges facing those who regularly take care of their loved ones,” said Danny Wilson, who now serves as the group’s facilitator. “Having started this group is a testament to Linda’s caring and generous spirit. She is truly one of Rappahannock’s angels.”

As Rappahannock’s representative on the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation, Linda was a key architect behind its successful “Give Local Piedmont” online giving program. She was also involved in the formation of the Artists of Rappahannock Tour, the rehabilitation of Scrabble School into the current senior center, and also served on the advisory board for Lord Fairfax Community College. “Whatever the undertaking, Linda always sought to serve the entire community — residents whose families have lived here for generations and those who have recently arrived,” said longtime friend Kathryn Treanor.

These days, Linda Dietel’s own health issues have trimmed her involvement in Rappahannock’s charitable organizations. But her legacy is not just the community organizations she founded or led, but in those she recruited to nurture and run those organizations.

When Linda was a young girl, she met the famous deaf and blind activist and author, Helen Keller, at an event her grandfather was hosting. Linda wrote in Keller’s palm, “I love you.” It was as if, at that tender age, she recognized a kindred spirit.