The Day I Realized I Was a Community Organizer

by rebsnugs

The railroad from Chicago to Sharon, WI on a wintry walk in 2011.

The railroad from Chicago to Sharon, WI on a wintry walk in 2011.

I’ve donned the hat of a community organizer. I have heard the stories from those who are so deep in their volunteer efforts that they hardly have time to breathe. Luckily, I am fortunate to know and remember the benefits of breathing, and make the commitment to take time for myself, to breathe, to stretch, for at least 5 minutes every day, no matter how hectic life seems. After centering and grounding myself, it is easy to resume my work and remember who I am helping through my efforts.

Some of my earliest memories involve playing with my young friends while my parents volunteered at various events, attended meetings and made plans for future projects. My mom was active with a local bulk food buyers club and we would all get together occasionally (my 3-year old memory does not serve me with the frequency of our meetings) to sort out food while I played in the back room with the other kids. My mom was also a troop leader for the Girl Scouts from the time I was a Brownie in 2nd grade until I became a Senior in 7th grade. All of my friends were Girl Scouts, and I loved learning new skills, earning badges, going camping, learning how to cook, go to retreats and camps, and spend time with my friends.

My dad was really involved with my hometown’s main street organization and helped them take responsibility over an annual bicycle ride in my hometown, the Roun’da Manure. Before we moved to Sharon, the Roun’da Manure was organized by the Sharon Historical Society and a number of other village organizations shared the responsibility of rest stops to benefit their causes. It was a community-wide fundraiser and attracted as many as 1,500 riders one year, as well as the attention of Bicycling Magazine which highlighted it as one of America’s Best Centuries in 1993. For whatever reason, the Historical Society’s volunteer base got burnt out and the Historical Society disbanded, turning over the Roun’da Manure to the Sharon Main Street Association.

For the past 10 years or so, Sharon Main Street has struggled without strong leadership and it seems like volunteers are hard to come by. Despite these labor-needs, I have watched the organization successfully continue to host the many events that our town is proud to offer to the community – Model A Day in June, the Roun’da Manure bicycle tour in August, and Victorian Christmas in December. Sharon Main Street has recently changed names to Historic Downtown Sharon, but continues to draw a committed group of community members who love promoting our town, giving people a reason to come to Sharon. It’s an incredibly special place with a strong community, dedicated to improving our quality of life and giving us all something to look forward to. The Sharon Chamber of Commerce hosts a 4th of July parade that draws people from all over the county and stateline. How can a tiny town of 1200 people do that? I really don’t know. I am in awe of the strength and vigor of my community.

Both of my parents raised me with a spirit of volunteerism and encouraged me to participate in the many activities in our town. A wonderfully talented and generous neighbor helped me design and sew my own Victorian Christmas costume on several different occasions, and I happily donated these costumes to our town’s costume library for others to use. For many years my mom and I would spend hours at “the Buggy Barn” in the days leading up to Victorian Christmas, fastening lights and garland onto ancient horse-drawn carriages for the delight of seeing them spin through town three times on Victorian Christmas eve. My mom always said it was kind of sad to spend so much time decorating when we only got to enjoy the parade for 15 minutes, but that is the nature of some fleeting pleasures, I suppose. It was a constant process of giving back to the community and all who decided to bear the weather and come out to our town to see it lit up in its Victorian glamor.

We spend so much time as a community celebrating and highlighting the moments in history when Sharon has been a place of economic prosperity and recognition. We celebrate the 1890’s when Sharon boasted several hotels, a dance hall, and an opera hall. We celebrate the 1930’s when Sharon was home to a hardware store, a general store, and many other businesses. And we bring life back to a town on our annual bicycle ride that draws in anywhere from 300 to 1500 people from the Chicagoland and Milwaukee metro areas to ride their bicycles on quiet, rural roads of our tiny town. I am hopeful that the energy and dedication of our group of volunteers is contagious, that others will enjoy our celebrations as much as we do and that they will realize the joy in uplifting a community’s spirits, even if for only a day.

I have been working on compiling a list of all of the past attendees of previous years’ Roun’da Manure rides and currently have a list of 334 people who have come to our town and enjoyed a day of ice cream and biking. The computer work is somewhat tedious and I am slightly stressed to finish before I leave town for a month, but with every name that I enter I think of how grateful I am for their support of our community. I am thankful for those in my town who believe that being outside and enjoying a bicycle ride is an important activity to organize and provide. I am thankful to my parents and teachers who taught me that volunteering my time and efforts is worthwhile and meaningful. As I grow deeper with the Historic Downtown Sharon organization, I keep thinking of new ways that we can reach out to more people to tell them about our town and our events, and I’m committed to seeing that our projects don’t fall through the cracks.

I don’t know how I came to be a community organizer, but I often remember my choir teacher in high school telling me that I was a leader, even though I don’t have to say much. I have known for a long time that I have to choose and live a life that I believe is worth following, and volunteering my time for causes that I support is one of those fundamental goals. At times it seems overwhelming to choose between causes, be it bicycling, sustainable agriculture, meditation, wellness, community activism, literacy, recycling… but I have to remember that they are all related, and that the work I do in one area of my life helps me gain insight and skills in other areas of my life.

I am so happy to share myself with my community, and that my community continues to share itself with me.