MAPLEWOOD, NJ — South Orange and Maplewood residents gathered Sunday, March 25, for the SOMA Two Towns for All Ages Volunteer Fair, an event allowing organizations from both towns to reach the public and find new volunteers. Approximately 35 groups set up tables at The Woodland in an effort to talk about their organizations and become more active members of the community.
“This is exceeding my expectations,” Cathy Rowe, the coordinator of SOMA Two Towns for All Ages, told the News-Record at the event. “I’m pleasantly surprised, because clearly there was a need.”
Rowe said that for this inaugural volunteer fair approximately 20 to 25 organizations were supposed to be present, but others came and asked for a table on the day of the event. Groups looking for volunteers at the fair included: the Community Coalition on Race, the Cougar Soccer Club, Maplewood’s Durand-Hedden House and the Essex County Youth Orchestra.
“Originally it was going to be for seniors; there was a need for a volunteer fair there,” Rowe said. “We were looking for a small space for people to shop around. But that limits who would come, so we opened it up to anyone.”
Joan Crystal, a board member of SOMA Two Towns for All Ages, said the turnout at the volunteer fair was a reflection of the towns.
“There are a lot of volunteer services in our community,” Crystal told the News-Record at the event. “This is a just a small sample, and you can see the success.”
Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca agreed.
“This is the first time we’ve done something like this at this scale; you can feel the energy in the community,” DeLuca told the News-Record at the event. “Civic engagement is high in Maplewood and in South Orange, so it taps into that. And there’s a huge menu of things to pick from.”
One organization hoping to reach a new audience at the volunteer fair was YouthNet, a nonprofit group based in Maplewood that holds programs for middle and high school students in the towns. The Youth Advisory Board is made up of students in grades six through 12, who work with the community to speak out for the young people.
“We’re looking for adults to help chaperone our events and for people to join our middle and high school board,” YouthNet Executive Director Diane Malloy told the News-Record at the event. “Middle school is often forgotten, and it’s important that when they get to high school they’re ready. And it’s important for adults to take an interest and share the program.”
The SOMA School Library Friends were also stationed at the volunteer fair, looking for people to join their ranks. The organization aims to work with the school libraries in the South Orange-Maplewood School District to support the school librarians, collect diverse books, and help parents and children find a healthy balance with technology.
“The values of libraries are hard to maintain,” SOMA School Library Friends member Camille Carter told the News-Record at the event. “Finding new books was actually started by the first-graders at Marshall Elementary School when they realized so many books are about white boys. So we want to collect books that reflect the diversity.”
The group has also hosted screenings of the documentary “Screenagers,” which addresses how to manage children and technology, and it works with the district’s librarians to learn how to incorporate technology into school libraries. To more closely tie the community together, the group has also been working with the South Orange Public Library.
“South Orange and Maplewood are so concentrated in civics,” said Carter, whose own children are in the fourth grade at Jefferson Elementary School and ninth grade at Columbia High School. “So this will help reach parents and others.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic