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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Community service is not just a punchline

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The contrast between Voters’ Pamphlet statements by U.S. Senate candidate Susan Hutchison and incumbent Sen. Maria Cantwell sparked more than a few jokes. Hutchison has been active in community philanthropy throughout her professional career, both as a volunteer with a variety of organizations and as executive director for the Simonyi Fund for the Arts and Sciences.

And then there was this: “Community Service: Maria is an avid hiker and outdoorswoman … and hopes to tackle more of our nation’s highest peaks.” It sounded more like an update for a dating profile than a political resume. Cantwell’s spokesman Bryan Watt confirmed it was a simple clerical error, and that Sen. Cantwell has been involved with the South Snohomish Chamber of Commerce as a former board member, Mountlake Terrace Friends of the Library, and Alderwood Rotary as a former board member.

About 30 percent of all Washington residents volunteer at least once each year with a nonprofit organization, according to 2015 data. At least twice that many informally volunteer in their communities, helping out a neighbor or pitching in on a local project. “Community service is the glue that binds our American society,” Hutchison said. “We serve where we see a need, without payment, often without recognition, and without regard for our differences.”

To the Emerging Leaders Society of United Way of Spokane, community service is more than a punch line. On Thursday, the organization hosted its signature event, the fifth annual Spokane Philanthropy Awards recognizing businesses and individuals for their contributions.

These emerging leaders aren’t just padding their resumes with an annual gala. Community service happens monthly, combined with quarterly leadership development events. Philanthropy-focused networking builds connections while serving side by side.

“Their goal is to change the face of volunteerism in the community. That’s how this group has really bonded,” said Lisa Curtis, director of communications and marketing for United Way of Spokane County. “They put philanthropy at the center of everything they do and carry it into their work and their families.”

Formal volunteering is a challenge for busy families, but Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys prove the old adage: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” Volunteer rates are highest for women, for those 35 to 54 years old in prime working years, for those who are married, and for couples with children.

When asked for her definition of community service, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said: “Brian and I believe it takes each one of us doing our part to build stronger families and stronger communities, and service to our community is critical to that mission. We have been involved with the Arc of Spokane, National Down Syndrome Society, taking the kids to package food for the homeless, Boy Scouts and support of the Spokane Guild School, to name a few. We want our children to understand and appreciate the need to be involved in our community and do our part to improve lives and support those in need.”

The same question was extended to Lisa Brown’s campaign. They had not responded as of Friday evening.

Participation in some of the old formal community organizations may be dropping, but community needs have not. Changing the face of volunteerism means incorporating it into every day, your work and your family, not something separate from who you are. It’s how you do business together and build friendships. Ask anyone who volunteers why they do it, and the answer will be some variation on personal satisfaction and community pride.

And it’s essential to building community bonds that can survive the political polarization threatening to spin us apart. It’s harder to demonize someone when you’ve sweated out a task together focused on helping others.

In Spokane County, you can find a place to plug in to community service through VolunteerSpokane.org, a website open to all nonprofits and volunteers of all ages. The site lists 400 nonprofits and has about 8,000 users. It grew out of a joint effort of the city of Spokane and United Way. If you don’t live in Spokane, just look around for a busy person and ask.

If you see a need in your community and think “somebody needs to do something,” remember that you are somebody.

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