It is popular nowadays for observers of the American scene to lament what they call the coarsening of civic life and what they describe as the growing cult of the selfish individual. While some surveys suggest that people are less likely now to assist others in time of need than individuals 25 or 30 years ago, or to join in worthwhile projects, there is significant evidence to the contrary. Presentation of the Jefferson and the American Red Cross Hometown Heroes awards here this week is proof of a continuing willingness to serve and to help others - even, sometimes, when great personal risk is involved.
The Jefferson Awards is a widely praised national program with a decidedly local component. The awards are designed "to recognize, inspire and activate volunteerism and public service in communities, workplaces and schools across America." That's certainly the case here for the program jointly sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, WRCB-TV and First Tennessee Bank.
A local award is given monthly over the course of a year. At the end of that period, a recipient is chosen from those winners to represent Chattanooga in national competition in Washington, D.C. Keith Landecker, a radio host for WJTT/Power 94 and the founder of an inner-city youth baseball program, was named as that representative.
Landecker's credentials are impressive. When he discovered nearly a decade ago that inner-city kids didn't have the same access to organized baseball teams as other youngsters of their age, he started a league to provide one. He's continued to pour heart, soul and time into the league and the Tennessee Express baseball team. He doesn't regret a moment of it, and was quick to say that while the Chattanooga Jefferson Award honors him, it will have especial meaning to kids under his tutelage as well.
"These kids [in the inner-city league] are not gang members. They're good kids," he said. "They work hours and hours and hours doing the right thing. And we keep telling them, if you do the right things, good things will happen for you."
The award acknowledges Landecker's determination to do the right thing on behalf of this community. It also underscores the validity of the lessons taught by Landecker, by those who work with him in the baseball program and by volunteers in many other programs throughout the community.
The Hometown Heroes luncheon sponsored by the Greater Chattanooga Area American Red Cross honored five people for various aspects of community service. Though the categories are diverse, each of the winners and nominees, in the words of the sponsoring organization, "possess some degree of courage, dedication, concern or conviction." The winners were Nolan Skiles for Good Samaritan youth, Dottie Womack for hospital volunteer, Eva Knab for Red Cross disaster volunteer, John Robinson for first responder and Vernon Mcleod for Good Samaritan adult.
Those who possess and demonstrate such traits certainly are worthy of public commendation. Their deeds and the many similar ones done by others that too often go unsung are positive testimony in the ongoing debate about the willingness of individuals to serve others with no hope of gain.
There are, to be fair, legions of men and women, both young and old, here and elsewhere, who willingly provide expertise, care and compassion to those in need. Landecker's fellow nominees for Chattanooga's Jefferson Award - Mike Brumlow, Herb Cohn, Carlos Dempsey, Tommie Erwin, Eddie Holmes, Johnny Jennings, Bobby Radford, Kaylee Radzyminski, Wendy Ransom, Jim Rogers and Jim Samples - have equally impressive resumes. So do the other Hometown Heroes nominees - Dakota Nation, Gayle Mingledorff, Ernie Young, Brian Thacker and Sam Harris.
By word and deed, each can be acclaimed a winner and a hero. Landecker acknowledged that when he said at the award ceremony that "I am humbled in your presence. I don't even think I should be here."
There is no ready way to know if the volunteer rate here is higher or lower than the national average, which is measured annually by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most recent report puts that rate at 26.3 percent. That translates into about 62.8 million people volunteering through or for an organization at least once between September 2009 and September 2010.
The national rate declined minimally during that period, but not enough to give credence to those who say the national spirit of volunteerism is dying, if not dead. Indeed, the 2010 rate is statistically similar to those of earlier years. Other numbers within the report reflect a continuity in volunteerism that is gratifying.
Men continued to volunteer at the same rate as in previous years, though the rate for women did drop slightly. Women, according to the bureau, still volunteer at a higher rate than men across all age groups, educational levels and other demographic factors. Those most likely to volunteer were in the 35-44 age bracket; those least likely were in their early 20s. Married persons volunteered at a higher rate than those who were not married. Parents continued to volunteer at rates higher than individuals without children. Impressive as those numbers and statistics may be, they remain abstracts.
People are the best way to take the real measure of volunteerism and the spirit that propels it. By that standard, the Jefferson and Hometown Heroes award ceremonies are an indication that here, at least, volunteerism remains a vital and honored part of community life.