VillageWalk of Sarasota

Community of Excellence Winner for Civic Volunteerism, Larger Community

VillageWalk of Sarasota: Involvement That Makes a Difference

by Kathy Danforth

VillageWalk of Sarasota is the winner of the Civic Volunteerism award for larger communities, with an active group of residents giving of their time and money to benefit people both inside and outside their association. The forty-plus groups within the community serve by organizing events and activities for residents, as well as contributing to needs beyond the front gate.

"Hope in a Backpack" is a successful service program that has grown and spread. Manager Bob Malan explains, "This was taken on by a group of ladies who discovered that one school in Sarasota County didn't have this program, which sends food home with kids who are lower income and not getting food over the weekend. They have advertised in the Village Talk newsletter and raised over $10,000!" Malan reports. "They said, 'Sarasota's an affluent town, but there are people who don't have the money to feed their children properly and we need to help out.’ They've held benefits and they were handing out flyers at events last year, and there’s always an announcement in the weekly bulletin. They're a pretty creative and well-organized group of women. Their next event is a Casino Night and they're hoping for 140 people at $25 per head, with a silent auction as well."

"The first time they met they fed 25 kids, and by the end of the year, they were feeding all 105 kids identified as being in need, at a cost of $98 per child per year. This year they're not only feeding the 105, but are adding snacks as well and are already earning money for the following year. The group probably has 30–40 volunteers involved now," Malan estimates. "It takes about 20 volunteers each week to separate food, pack it, and deliver it to the school or drop-off point. There's a lot more work involved than just showing up and giving money."

Besides involving more people in their own community, participation in the project has spread to other areas of the Palmer Ranch Master Association. "We were the first HOA in this area to take on this project. We're sort of a case of how it can be done, and we're pretty proud of that," Malan comments.

The community sends packages to troops overseas, an undertaking begun by a staff member who was formerly with the military. "You pick up a small postage box and fill it with suggested items like gum, playing cards, toothbrushes, etc. It's a way to give people away from home some comfort stuff," Malan says. The residents filling the boxes pay for shipping and the VillageWalk staff takes it from there. "Some people do two boxes a month, and our office staff does a box every month or so," Malan states. "One person who received a box sent an e-mail with a picture of the boxes and the troops saying, 'Thanks.'"

The community collects year-round for the All Faiths Food Bank. "We've given almost 1200 pounds of food," Malan says, "and we try to key in on 'buy one get one free' and have people drop the 'free' one off here. People seem to be more generous near the holidays, but we still have people giving food in the summer when occupancy drops."

VillageWalk has begun collecting Toys for Tots along with bringing a new ornament for the Town Center tree at the holiday tree lighting. Malan recalls, "Last year our Activities Director, Doris Pires, said, 'Why don't we do something to help the community?' We filled a truck with gifts, including four or five bikes.”

Collecting box tops for education is a recent addition to the community's efforts. Malan notes, "We've gotten huge amounts in. We keep the collection box in the office, and a mother in the community, who is also a board member, takes it to the school and they get credit for it. It's just another way the community can come together for a need."

Malan observes, "Not everyone wants to give to every charity, but we're trying to find different groups so that everyone can give to something—it's a broad-based approach. Everyone appreciates helping out the community, and it makes our community better."

Volunteering of time and effort within VillageWalk itself enriches the community by providing fun, meeting needs, and providing valuable interaction and support. With 1177 homes and a staff of 25, much time and effort come from residents to provide the busy schedule and diverse opportunities the residents enjoy. Malan states, "Over forty groups are listed in the newsletter. All of the board-recognized groups are open to any resident. Even if you're a VillageWalk Democrat you can go to the VillageWalk Republicans meeting! We want everyone to be aware that they're welcome."

The association's CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) includes about 30 members who attend about 40 hours of training each year to keep up their certification. "They have organized bins of bandages and first aid supplies in the attic of the kitchen, where there's an emergency generator," Malan explains. The team has conducted an emergency training drill in coordination with county officials. "They simulated having dead and injured people around the community and had a heliport landing. It was a neat activity to watch," Malan comments.

A diabetes support group helps patients living with diabetes cope, share information, and provide assistance for each other. "We also have a bereavement group headed by a RN to help individuals through a loss," Malan shares.

The wide variety of groups align behind various causes and interests, with Malan pointing out, "As the community ages, different groups emerge. The ROMEOs—Retired Old Men Eating Out—organize four big parties every year that usually sell out," Malan recalls. "The last one was Oktoberfest, with an Oompah band and brats that everyone absolutely loved. They try to keep their parties affordable."

The Baby Boomers are a group of younger retirees who organize dances and social activities for the community. "They donate in-house and also work or send money to the All Faiths Food Bank," Malan explains. "They're not just creating parties and fun—they're trying to make it more well-rounded." The Activities Committee heads up four to five events each year, and Malan says, "They vary their parties and try to keep their ideas new and fresh." Past events have included a pig roast, ladies' tea, Kentucky Derby party, and luau.

The Gifts and Bequests Committee provides a variety of beneficial events, which in turn fund improvements to the community. One such event has been the Health Fair. "They got 40 doctors and health care specialists, such as plastic surgeons and dentists, to pay $25 per table," Malan states. "There was a blood drive, free cholesterol screening, mini-check-up, and lots of information available. It was extremely popular, with people parked all over the grass." Malan notes wryly, "We tried to get them to walk and be healthy, but it didn't work."

Another popular event they have organized is a tour of 10–12 neighborhood homes that owners have decorated or remodeled. Malan explains, "Since the community has five basic house plans, this gives people ideas on how to update their homes and improve them, which also raises property values here. This event turned out to be huge because everyone likes to be nosy and see what their neighbor is doing or how they've decorated! This year they will also bring in the vendors who have worked on these homes for residents to visit with."

These dual-purpose activities, along with other fundraisers such as spaghetti suppers and planned trips, have enabled the committee to install a large fountain behind the town center. "It took one and a half years to raise the $13,000 needed, and the fountain is very attractive," Malan says. The committee also helped fund the purchase of a baby grand piano for use by the community's volunteer choir and others. "One of their goals is to keep culture alive in the community so they'll have big names come in and may pay $1000 for a performance and recoup it through donations," Malan explains.

Politics are not left out of the mix and VillageWalk sports both Democrat and Republican groups. "They're campaigning, but they all get along," Malan is thankful to report. "The Republicans have offered a non-political four-week Constitution 101 class that covers the constitution and how government works. It has sold out several times."

VillageWalk University offers about six classes each year to residents. "The teacher is always a volunteer who lives here," Malan explains. "One guy was a Broadway producer so he went through the logistics and background of starting a Broadway show. One woman who wrote a book on quilting and is nationally known taught a class." There have been classes on crafts, reptiles, and how the body works. "Six or eight people put all this together, put it on PowerPoint, and keep it free of charge except for supplies," Malan relates.

Most of the community's other special interest groups—encompassing book clubs, bridge, needlepoint, financial investing, writing, gourmet food, snowbirds, singles, and more—are run by volunteer labor. And Malan says, "We're not going to say 'no’—if you want to volunteer to get something together, that's great for us!" The residents of VillageWalk have given generously of their time and energy, and it has produced a rewarding community life and also overflowed to others.