Volunteerism turns cities into communities

Published 10:19 am Thursday, January 21, 2016

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a column about wanting to get more involved in the community.

I asked you all for suggestions for where I should spend my time, and I was quite pleased with the response. It seems there is no shortage of opportunities in our little corner of Michigan, which says a lot about our communities.

One opportunity I took advantage quickly of is volunteering at the Hunter Ice Festival. I’ve long loved this festival and was excited when Lesley Bookout said she was looking for volunteers.

What surprised me though, was just how many volunteers help support this festival every year. Of course I’ve seen people working every nook and cranny throughout the festival, but I never realized how much it takes to put on a festival of this size, nor how many people willingly donate their time to operating the festival.

In the Psi Iota Xi warming center in the former Riverfront Café alone there are some 40 volunteers donating their time to welcome visitors and help facilitate activities. Another group of people baked cookies Tuesday night and several have been working hard since last year’s festival to coordinate all the moving parts. You’ll find ice cream scoopers, other warming center volunteers, chili cook-off coordinators, snow shovelers and more if you attend the Hunter Ice Festival, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as volunteers are concerned.

It was truly heartwarming to see all the people who dedicate their time to making sure festivals like this can be offered, and it’s the same way in Dowagiac, Cassopolis and Edwardsburg.

This is exactly why I’m so happy I decided to return home after college, instead of taking a job at one of Michigan’s more metropolitan areas.

I’m very much the definition a “small-town girl.” Sure, living in a little town has its downfalls (everyone knows everyone; your past frequently comes knocking at doors you closed a long time ago), but those negatives are such a small percentage of what it means to live in a place like Niles, Dowagiac, Cassopolis or Edwardsburg.

I lived in Kalamazoo, a small city, through college, and was fairly active in the city through work and student organizations. I loved of a lot of the aspects of the city life — there was never a shortage of new restaurants to try or businesses open late — but what I lacked in the city was a lot of what I’ve mentioned earlier.

When I think of Niles, I think of the people who make it tick. Sure, there are business owners who lead the economy and political officials who make decisions that keep our municipalities moving, but beyond that, I think of the people you see standing outside Walmart, ringing bells for Salvation Army. I think of the greeters at the Hunter Ice Festival and the emcee at the local pageants.

These people are what make Niles — and the other villages and cities in our coverage area — feel like home.

Those friendly faces that love their hometowns enough to make others feel at home — those are what define the difference between a city and a community.

To all of the wonderful people who take time out of their busy schedules to give back to their communities, I thank you for making our region such a great place to live. Because of you, I’m proud to call southwest Michigan home.


Ambrosia Neldon is the managing editor at Leader Publications. She can be reached by phone at (269) 687-7713, or by email at ambrosia.neldon@leaderpub.com.