Volunteers help make projects blossom Sculptor's inspiration brings garden to life


In Union Bridge, a community that is paying for its Town Hall with pancake breakfasts, volunteer spirit is rooted even in the lilies and irises and daisies that bloom around the building.

The town has no money for a garden. It wouldn't have a garden if sculptor Jo Israelson hadn't been strolling the streets of her adoptive town one day around Earth Day in 1995 and decided that the brick facade and blond wood doors of the new Town Hall needed something to set them off.

Plants, she thought. She had been doing landscaping work to help support her art, so plants came easily to mind to create a pleasing setting for the Town Hall on Locust Street that had replaced an old storefront office in 1994.

In some towns, anyone with a similar idea would present it to the Town Council, which would appropriate money for a landscape designer and contractor to plant trees and flowers.

But Union Bridge isn't some towns.

In Union Bridge, a town of 1,003 in northwestern Carroll County, the first approach to every problem is to look for volunteers instead of spending taxpayer dollars from a budget that is small and always tight ($476,000).

"This is a poor community," said Dean Pennington, a gun shop owner who has been in business in Union Bridge for eight years. "People don't have the money to pay people to do it, so they have to do it themselves. And it's a close community."

Karen L. Kotarski, a town councilwoman and member of the Town Hall Funding Committee, said people respond to the town's needs. "We rely on our businesses, our neighbors, people who don't even live in town. I guess it's that sense of community. It's not a flag-waving thing, 'Oh, good, here's a plaque for us.' A lot of things are done because, 'I can do this, and I don't mind helping,' " she said.

For example, Union Bridge took out a $200,000 loan to pay for the new Town Hall, opened in 1994. The funding committee is paying off the mortgage with pancake breakfasts, raffles and an annual fall festival.

When a space crunch for town records developed last month, Mayor Perry L. Jones Jr. solved it with an offer to "rustle up enough people and get some wood and go in there and build some racks."

So when Israelson wanted landscaping, she started with the knowledge that although the council approved the idea, no money was available.

She enlisted the Carroll Garden Club to design the gardens and students from Bowling Brook Preparatory School in nearby Middleburg to plant trees and flowers. And she enlisted everyone in town to donate flowers and trees.

The Garden Club provided a phased design for a Victorian garden in red, orange and yellow, "with some white for sparkle and just a touch of sky blue," according to a list of suggested donations that Israelson circulated before the first planting.

On planting day in September 1995, town residents came with Siberian irises, hosta, sedum, red-hot poker, black-eyed Susans, day lilies and Shasta daisies, locust trees and tulip poplar trees. A business donated mulch.

"I like the notion of a garden that everyone in town contributed to because the Town Hall is something that everyone contributed to," Israelson said.

A native of Maine, Israelson, who renovated the town's old fire hall for her home and studio, became involved with the community after moving to Union Bridge four years ago.

The garden was planted, but Israelson needed tools and mulch for the next season. That's where the local pizzeria came in.

Israelson was staring at the giant jars of pepperoncini while she waited for a pizza. Her mind's eye saw the jars filled with donations.

The pizzeria owner donated empty jars, and Israelson placed them on store counters around town for spare change. She got $65 last year, enough to buy shovels and hoes and some mulch.

Israelson then removed all but one of the jars in recognition that store owners faced competing demands for counter space from charitable groups. The lone jar that remains, in the Town Hall, brought in $12 this year.

She dug into her pocket for $28 to make up the $40 cost of the mulch and found a 12-year-old volunteer to weed the garden this summer to earn community service hours required for graduation.

She acknowledged that it might sound foolish to think about expanding when money isn't available for mulch, but she would like to add daffodils in the median strip of the Town Hall driveway.

She needs a wheelbarrow and will need money for the final phase of the landscaping plan. The grassy area on the west side of the building is to be planted with flowers and shrubs lining a walkway.

"I really believe the roots [of the volunteer efforts] are in the county farming business," Israelson said. "You can't raise a barn without a community. That, and the fact that you can know every face in town. The lack of anonymity makes voluntarism more direct.

"When you're up at 3 a.m. cooking bacon for the town breakfast, you can see the 400 people who come to eat it. And if you eat enough pancakes, the mortgage will be paid off."

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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