The Unfettered Critic – Dec 2015/Jan 2016

A few weeks ago, on Halloween night, we found ourselves standing in the middle of Jacksonville’s historic cemetery.

It was quiet up there, and very dark. The outlines of nearby tombstones were clear, but we couldn’t read the names on them without a flashlight. Reading, however, wasn’t what we were there for anyway.

We were serving as part of the “graveyard shift” on a special mission. Our local police had expressed concern about the possibility of vandalism in the cemetery on a night that just might attract all manner of shenanigans. And, as so often is the case in our magical little town, a bunch of locals volunteered to give up thoughts of trick or treating, or dress-up partying, or lounging in front of the TV, by taking shifts and watching over the final resting places of all those Oregon pioneers and gold diggers.

The evening stayed surprisingly warm, with countless stars peeking between floating clusters of clouds. There wasn’t a Halloween demon to be seen, although we did scare off a few young revelers hoping to share some quality time with the dead.

We enjoyed cookies. And coffee. And camaraderie.

Ah, camaraderie. That’s the most common side effect of volunteering. You meet a lot of people who inevitably become friends. It’s a trap, volunteering—but a tender trap, one that puts you at the center of a circle of people who smile and call out your name as you wander through town. Remember George Bailey in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life? He was “the richest man in town”—and not because of his bank account.

And it’s one of the things that we love most about this place. Jacksonville is full of George Baileys.

The tender trap of volunteering starts so innocently. We’d lived here only a couple of months when we heard about a “Meet the City Council Candidates” event hosted by the Jacksonville Boosters Club. Thinking it might be good to learn about the nominees, we decided to check it out. And by the end of the meeting, we’d not only figured out which candidates we liked, we’d also become acquainted with so many new neighbors that we lost track of their names. Yet we knew we’d see them again. Most had told us how they loved to take care of little things in and around the town. We met people who volunteered to maintain the woodland trails. To rake the cemetery every few months. To price things for the citywide garage sale. To help with parking and trash at Britt concerts. To arrive with their pickups for all manner of charitable hauling. To serve as “Marshalls” during the town’s (December) Victorian Christmas parade. And the (February) Chinese New Year’s parade.

There was no use in avoiding the obvious. We owned a rake. And a pick-up. And we loved parades. So we joined the folks who volunteer to make this friendly town a friendly place for friendly people.

Do you detect a theme here? Yep. It starts with a V and ends with you.

Pick a local group and volunteer. There are lots of options: the Jacksonville Boosters, local branches of the Rotary and the Lions clubs, Friends of Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery, Friends of the Library, the Britt Festival’s volunteer staff, Food and Friends—and lots more. Find your favorite. Helping out will make you feel like the richest man or woman in town.

Think of it as exercise, a way to stretch your good will and keep yourself out of the graveyard for a little longer.

Unless, of course, you draw the graveyard shift.

Featured image of Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery by Paula Block Erdmann.