United Vision moving forward; Months of work sparks action on volunteer center, other projects


Like flowers budding in spring, some of the ideas produced by the Howard County, a United Vision project last year are beginning to blossom.

From a central county clearinghouse for volunteers to gathering oral histories during the county's 150th birthday celebration, the organization's action plans are beginning to be realized.

"I could not be more pleased or elated with the wellspring of community commitment to this agenda. It's their vision, and they're taking ownership of it," said Sandra T. Gray, who served as a co-chairwoman of the effort with former County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

The group is raising money for staff as it works toward incorporation as a permanent organization, its leaders said.

Howard County's and Columbia's long tradition of resident involvement is helping, too.

"It's incredible, it really is," said Louise B. Riemer, president of the Howard County Association of Volunteer Administrators, a 3-year-old private nonprofit group.

That tradition is partly rooted in Columbia's history, the 30-year-resident said. "We came here voluntarily to a new community. There was nothing here. If you wanted something, you had to invent it."

United Vision involved hundreds of grass-roots activists, who looked for ways to draw Howard's nearly 250,000 residents closer together.

Timed to coincide with the once-a-decade update of the county's General Plan, United Vision was guided by organizers from the National Civic League, a 105-year-old group based in Denver that is dedicated to resident involvement in building and running communities.

Six months of meetings and discussions resulted in a final report presented to the public in November.

"These things are happening because this report really generated some interest," said Lynne Nemeth, project director.

"A lot of the stuff are ideas that have been kicked around for a while, and during the vision process they came up again. We sort of drummed up this grass-roots impetus to get moving on some of these things," she said.

Using the report

The county government and a collection of organizations in Columbia are reviewing the report for ways to use its ideas.

One result is creation of a heritage division by the county planning and recreation departments to recognize and promote county historic sites.

Another is the effort to coordinate volunteers and volunteer programs.

The goal, said Barbara Lawson, executive director of the Columbia Foundation, is to find out "how we can more efficiently and effectively recruit, place and train volunteers in Howard County. How do we pull together different volunteer plans so we're not duplicating?"

Agencies from the Columbia Association to the county's Office on Aging have for years relied on volunteers to help with projects and services.

But no one knows the exact number of volunteers or whether some agencies duplicate efforts.

Prospective volunteers and agencies seeking help have no single place where they can find information about each other.

Recognizing that, the Civic and Community Life section of the final vision report called for increased resident involvement and more coordination among the county, nonprofit groups, religious organizations and businesses.

Funding is next step

The action plan to achieve that goal calls for establishing a countywide office of volunteerism.

Sandy Fairhurst, manager of the Columbia Association Volunteer Corps, said the Governor's Office on Service and Volunteerism has contributed $4,000 to help hire a part-time coordinator to list the volunteers and organizations in the county. The Horizon Foundation is considering more than doubling that, and the more than 200 vision stakeholders are also being asked to contribute, Nemeth said.

"There is a potential here to enlist thousands of volunteers, and a new countywide volunteer center can make that happen," Fairhurst said.

Gathering volunteers

Her office refers several hundred volunteers to activities as diverse as helping Running Brook Elementary School in Wilde Lake to supporting the Columbia Orchestra.

"We have a group of 40 volunteers that just adopted Running Brook," she said. They work as tutors on weekends and help in nearly every aspect of the school's operation during the week.

Riemer said volunteer programs can be complicated to operate.

"It's just the same as a personnel office," she said, adding that volunteers must be screened, trained and directed to activities that interest them and that they have the ability and time to do. A countywide volunteer clearinghouse can also be linked to other similar groups in the region so that people from Howard County can connect with programs that need help in Baltimore, and vice versa.

The grant will help pay for creation of a business plan that organizers can take to county elected officials and seek money and support.

"We have not gone away. We have just been pulling this stuff together," said Nemeth.

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