Volunteers are the backbone of the St. Charles Park District, and while COVID-19 has restricted many of the special events where volunteer opportunities abound, the need for residents to continue lending a hand has not gone away.
To help motivate individuals to volunteer, Volunteer Coordinator Lara Piner said the park district has recently implemented an incentive program with rewards for different levels of volunteer hours.
“Whether it’s a one-time event or an ongoing routine, we are so thankful for all of our volunteers, who dedicate their free time to give back to the park district,” Piner said. “We hope this new incentive program motivates current volunteers to continue, and encourages other residents to begin volunteering.”
The park district accepts volunteers of all ages, backgrounds and interests. Some offer special skills; many learn as they go. But it seems for most, once they start volunteering, they can’t stop.
That was the case for Jim Lotarski. About two years ago, the St. Charles North High School biology teacher began volunteering in the natural areas to actively make a difference in the environment. But what began as a Saturday routine to help with restoration, seed collection, planting and other seasonal needs, led to additional days during his school breaks.
“Anytime I can free myself up, I’m volunteering,” Lotarski said.
“It’s good to do something you’re not getting paid for, to do something because you love it,” he added.
Throughout the pandemic, volunteers have kept active and motivated especially when restrictions have cancelled favorite programs.
When Primrose Farm camp was cancelled in the summer of 2020, longtime camper Shawn Puri, 11, missed the regular interaction with the animals he had grown to love. As a result, he sought out volunteer opportunities. Now, every Saturday morning he makes his rounds performing different chores such as feeding the cows and chickens, and when he’s “super lucky”, collecting eggs.
Puri encourages all kids his age to volunteer. “You help improve your community and also learn a lot of things in whatever you’re doing. I used to think cows were just animals that sat in fields, ate grass and gave us milk. Now I know they are playful, have personalities and emotions.”
While it may be hard for an 11-year-old to get up on Saturday mornings, Shannon Puri, Shawn’s mom, said: “Once Shawn’s on the farm, he’s driven and motivated. When it’s time to go, he almost always wants to stay longer. He truly enjoys being there.”
Lotarski can relate. “It’s mentally uplifting to volunteer, to see the progress and be proud of what you’ve done.”
Being proud of her work is what keeps Alaina Zocher coming back to Pottawatomie Community Center to shred documents, which then provides bedding for the animals at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center.
Zocher said she continues volunteering because she likes the feeling of accomplishment. “I like getting the job done.”
“It’s been wonderful to watch Alaina grow and become more independent in her tasks,” said Elisa Dressler, who works with Alaina at the front desk. “She’s so outgoing, and everyone knows her at Pottawatomie. This opportunity has been fabulous for her self-esteem.”
Longtime volunteer Nancy Hannah of St. Charles said the bonus of volunteering is forming friendships with others and just having a good time. “It has been a lot of fun,” said Hannah who has helped with Hickory Knolls events and the America in Bloom initiative.
“You definitely get out of volunteering what you put in it,” she added. “By being involved, you learn so much and can truly make a difference.”
For more information on the district’s volunteer program, visit https://www.stcparks.org/volunteering/. To inquire about volunteer opportunities with the Park District, call Lara Piner at 630-513-4330.