A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

UlsterCorps: Volunteering and the Gift of Self

by Anne Pyburn Craig   

UlsterCorps volunteers glean the harvest in the fields of 
Huguenot Street Farm in New Paltz. Produce is delivered to 
Family of New Paltz, Dutchess Outreach, and other local food 
pantries. Over 2,000 pounds of food has been distributed 
this year. 
Volunteering is about as win/win as situations ever get. Not only does a good cause get needed help, but the person doing the work benefits in ways that go beyond the to-be-expected warm glow of satisfaction. Volunteering looks wonderful on a resume and offers a great opportunity to build your network, both socially and professionally. According to research from the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteers have a 27% better chance of finding employment after a gap than non-volunteers (for folks in rural areas, make that 55%). Still ,ore research indicates that volunteering improves one’s physical and emotional health, especially for senior citizens and people who volunteer more than 100 hours a year.

If you think that sounds great but are left wondering how to get in on the fun, or if you think volunteering begins and ends with the SPCA and the ambulance corps (not to insult either of those fine opportunities, but some folks are allergic to fur and others to crisis), there is a wonderful source of information out there for you. In 2009, some smart folks looked around Ulster County, realized that there were a vast variety of needs waiting to be filled and a kind and intelligent populace, and formed UlsterCorps.

UlsterCorps serves as a clearinghouse and matchmaking service, uniting organizations in need of person-hours with those who have the time and the will to help out. The mission statement is “to educate about volunteerism and best practices, facilitate successful and effective volunteer placements, and build collaborations among nonprofit organizations, local government agencies, and businesses engaged in community involvement throughout Ulster County,” with a special emphasis on fostering a culture of volunteerism among youth.

“It’s a diverse group of people with a deep commitment to community service who wanted to help others connect to the many wonderful agencies and events going on in the community in need of volunteer support,” says UlsterCorps Board President Nancy Pompeo. “At that time there was such a palpable spirit in the air for folks to become more involved in making the communities in which they lived a better place, and we wanted to be a direct part in helping to convert this spirit into practical, real action.”

“I would say that following the current president’s first election, there was such a palpable spirit in the air for folks to become more involved in making the communities in which they lived a better place, that I, too, felt this way and wanted to be a direct part in helping to convert this spirit into practical, real applications,” recalls board member Rik Flynn.

The organization strives to make that as simple as possible. On their website, volunteer opportunities are searchable by agency types and desired skill sets. Want something your organization can do together? Something young folks can do? It’s all there, along with a list of coming events involving volunteers and a map of local CSAs, pantries, and soup kitchens. Agencies are listed in 17 different categories; so whether you’re passionate about art, food, green energy, education, seniors, libraries, veterans or just about any other worthy cause under the sun, they’ll hook you up.

If long-term commitments aren’t your thing, you can become part of the U-team, a group of unsung heroes who get notified whenever there’s a short term project that needs sneakers on the ground. They communicate with the organizations and email the U-team cadre with opportunities; those who choose to opt in will find the details seamlessly arranged, so that all they need to do is show up.

Just reading the website is enough to make you feel better about life. Actually getting involved will make you feel better than better. UlsterCorps folks make memories together while they’re helping.

“Apple gleaning at Little Dog Orchard in Clintondale,” recalls Pompeo when asked for a favorite experience. “A group of people gleaned apples, then delivered them to People’s Place. As we were bringing them in, people were already leaving with fresh fruit!”

Nobody gets more mileage out of, say, a pile of apples. “One year the Bruderhof helped us make apple sauce, which was frozen and delivered to the food pantries, including People’s Place, for distribution throughout the winter,” recalls director Beth McLendon. “The other year, SUNY New Paltz students helped to harvest the apples as part of Make a Difference Day, and helped press the apples into cider for Thanksgiving supper at the soup kitchens. And of course the ‘drops’ and rotten apples went to the pigs at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.”

Even challenges are approached in high spirits, leading to fun. “I remember Michael and I driving apples and those frozen apple sauce footballs around to places in Saugerties and elsewhere,” says McLendon. “Several of the boxes the footballs were in broke before we got to the delivery sites, and it was a challenge to carry those cold and slippery things without dropping them. It made for humorous meetings with the pantry people.”

Gleaning is only part of the fun. You can get as serious as you want—a current training being offered by the Red Cross involves shelter issues in disaster relief, or take a more lighthearted approach and go volunteer at the Chalk Festival, for example, or the Tour De Kingston. Count butterflies. Help throw a barn sale. Teach someone to read or help them navigate a bureaucracy.
The opportunities are constantly developing, each with its own array of intangible perks and interconnections.

“The summer before we did Arts for Ulster, we did a project called Harvesting a Lifetime,” McLendon recalls, “in which volunteers and youth employed through the summer Youth Employment Program interviewed seniors at locations throughout the county: Queens Galley Soup Kitchen, the LGBTQ Center, Golden Hill, the New Progressive Baptist Church and Temple Emmanuel in Kingston, the Ellenville Senior Lunch Program, the Pine Hill, Rosendale, Marbletown and New Paltz Community Centers.

“What a range of stories! One of the seniors we interviewed spoke of meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, another of cutting ice from the Rondout to keep the milk cold at their family dairy. Two were holocaust survivors. As I started calling artists to see if they’d be willing to contribute a work of art to Arts for Ulster to benefit their favorite local non-profit, one said to me, ‘Beth, you interviewed my mother in law a few months before she died. We’re so grateful to have the DVD of her story. Of course I’ll donate a piece.’

“The closer one gets to doing something for someone else without any strings attached, is the closer one can get to real joy and sense of worth as a person. Volunteering holds that opportunity for anyone who is willing to give it a try,” says McLendon, and she speaks from experience. “And research has shown us that the sooner one gets involved in community service the more likely they are to retain it as a valued practice in their lives. If UlsterCorps can be a facilitator for this happening, all the time and effort in putting UlsterCorps together—and keeping it going—is worth it.”

The folks involved with UlsterCorps are constantly networking, resulting in a growing an interwoven web of good-doers. “I met Beth from UlsterCorps through the meaningful Harvesting a Lifetime activity,” says activist artist Elisa Pritzker, “where my late mother-in-law was interviewed. Since then, UlsterCorps has gained a good place in my heart. When I learned through Julie Wegener from Arts for Peace that UlsterCorps was now organizing Arts for Ulster, I didn’t hesitate to become part of the committee. I created a specific artwork, ‘Loving Pets’ for this multifaceted event. This artwork will represent the Ulster County SPCA, one of the 50 organizations that will benefit from Arts for Ulster’s auction at WAAM. Since I volunteer at the UCSPCA walking dogs, I feel honored that I’m the artist representing them.”

Besides the extensive menu of ongoing opportunities, there are some fun things coming up in August. Instead of attending as a paying guest, part of the throng, why not sign on via UlsterCorps and be an indispensable insider? Events include HITS, the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, the Bon Odori Japanese dance festival, and the Summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center, along with chances to glean the harvest, train with the Red Cross, and help improve the Lifebridge Sanctuary. It really is endless.

Of course, that’s part of the success of the UlsterCorps concept: the scope and variety of organizations they’ve got to work with. “I am grateful to have access to this network of potential volunteers,” says Kathy Cartagena of Family of New Paltz, surely echoing the feelings of many of these. “What a wonderful and extremely helpful idea…UlsterCorps!”
For more information, visit ulstercorps.org, find the group on Facebook, or call 845.481.0331.