Nothing makes a city shine better than smiles—for fun and for free.
Mount Dora keeps busy. All its city departments run at full tilt providing services and meeting the needs of residents and visitors alike.
But the job couldn’t get done without the involvement of its citizens. And it’s there—among Mount Dora’s volunteers—that this city truly makes itself special. Mount Dora prides itself in those unsung heroes who routinely show up to push a rake, pour a coffee, greet a visitor or point a car toward parking—and for nothing more than the opportunity to smile.
The benefits of volunteering have been widely documented—better health in later years, decreased depression, life-satisfaction, self-esteem and a sense of control over one’s life. More than anything, however, volunteers gain the deep satisfaction of making a difference on one’s community.
There couldn’t have been a better example of this than at this last weekend’s Art Festival, put on by the Mount Dora Center for the Arts with heavy assistance from the city. Some 285 artists displayed their work for more than (skies willing) some 200,000 visitors. Volunteer coordinator Beth Miller says about 150 volunteers were called on to provide artist hospitality, act as block captains helping with set up and tear down, and act as booth sitters, giving artists a break to eat or get to the rest room.
Volunteers Helen and Thomas Cutshaw are two of those volunteers. When I caught up with them, they were working their assigned block on Fourth Avenue between Donnelly and Baker, helping arriving artists to find their spot and assist with any issues setting up. Residents of the city for the past five years, Helen says that they’ve been volunteers every year at the Art Festival. “It’s just a way to give thanks to the city we love,” she says.
The Center for the Arts also uses volunteers in their Fifth Avenue gallery on Fifth Ave. and in the Art Creates Change events. Staged in Cauley Lott Park, Art Creates Change teaches arts concepts to kids through a variety of activities. The program starts up again soon with events staged the second and fourth Saturday of the month from February through April. (Volunteers interested in helping out in any of these arts programs can call Beth at the Center for the Arts at (352) 383-0880.)
Cathy Hoescht is one of Mount Dora’s super-volunteers. Her efforts over the years were the reason the Chamber of Commerce recently named her Citizen of the Year, citing a list that included volunteering as a board member of the Sonnentag Theatre at the Icehouse, board member of the Rotary Club of Mount Dora, chair of the board of Lake Cares Food Pantry, president of the Kiwanis Club of Mount Dora, board member of the Friends of the Mount Dora Library, and member of Leadership Florida, along with POP Warner Football participation.
Asked why she’s volunteered so much over the years, she laughed. “Because I can’t say no?”
“When you live in a place,” she continued, “If you want to become part of the community, you have to get involved. Now, you can volunteer for things that are aligned to your personal commitments. Raising my kids led me to Junior Achievement, Rotary, the Key Club and Pop Warner football. People who like to garden might volunteer for Lake Hills and Garden Club or Parks and Rec. You can also volunteer in clubs which open up opportunities through networking and traveling around the state. And then, there are things you do because your community really needs it, something like Lake Cares Food Pantry. There are aging seniors in Mount Dora who have no more earning opportunities and who will always depend on food assistance. We can’t let them down.”
There are loads of opportunities to volunteer in various city functions. Departments like Parks and Rec, the Police Department, Fire Department and W.T. Bland Library all have needs, everything from helping out at special events, assisting with care for city parks, and helping lead library programs.
Citizen volunteers also sit on city boards ranging from charter review, public arts, historic preservation, planning and zoning, and development review. (Note: these volunteer positions are appointed by council members.)
The city’s information officer Megan Glass also acts as volunteer liaison. If you’re interested in volunteering in these ways, contact Megan in City Hall at (352) 735-7142 or contact the departments directly. (You’ll have to fill out an application.)
Back when she was running for reelection for mayor, Cathy Hoescht hoped to widen the involvement of volunteers across the city, in particular care for the city’s new streetscape and gateway signage.
The problem, she says, is that there are simply too many green spaces in the city for employees to keep up with. “If you go down to the Chamber of Commerce building and Sunset Park, you’ll see those rose plants need to be topped. City workers don’t have time to do the little extra touches like that.”
Another Mount Dora resident who’s volunteered a lot over the years is Judy Smathers. When she wasn’t working for the city—she was the city’s first recreation director, headed up the Center of the Arts at one time, and has served on council—Smathers has volunteered on numerous committees and other service organizations, both locally and state-wide.
She says things have gotten a little easier for volunteers. “When I started with the city as recreation director, we totally relied on volunteers,” she says. “And back then, you had to bring your own rakes and trash bags. The Adopt-A-Park program run by Parks and Rec now has a van loaded with tools and stuff that they send around to where volunteers are working.”
Asked what she thought a great place to start volunteering might be, she said, “Oh, there are so many places. The library is good, and Parks and Rec. If you want to learn about the city, there’s the Chamber of Commerce. Visit Mount Dora is another. The Sonnentag Theater at Ice House has loads of opportunities, from taking tickets to ushering. Plus you get to watch the plays.”
“Volunteers are the backbone to our success in providing quality recreation programs for the citizens in Mount Dora,” said Parks and Recreation director Roy Hughes. They are used as coaches in soccer and basketball, help maintain parks, sit on advisory boards and lend an extra hand at special events like Snow in the Park and the Fourth of July Parade.
So if you’re wondering how to feel a stronger tie to your community, just reach out a hand to help. Everyone will smile.
David Cohea, Writer (firstname.lastname@example.org)