Jason Janik/Special contributor
Plano’s secret? Volunteerism
by Sharon Grigsby | March 22, 2019
No offense to the granddaddy of Collin County boomtowns, but my first reaction when I heard that Plano was named the happiest city in America was, You’ve got to be kidding.
I couldn’t imagine what makes Plano jollier than any other North Texas suburb — especially given that I’ve talked to plenty of residents in recent months who are fed up with its dizzying rate of development or just plain angry at their local elected officials.
Gimmicky “best and worst” monikers bestowed on cities are more sizzle than substance. Wallethub, responsible for Plano’s “happiest cities” designation, regularly churns out these rankings. Among recent ones: best cities for college basketball fans, fattest cities and best cities for St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations.
But making the top of the right list is marketing gold for City Hall, meaning you’ll hear about it a lot. That’s why, as your loyal Metro columnist, I felt obliged to look into “why Plano?”
I talked to cheerful people in the city who told me all the standard reasons. Downtown Plano’s small-town vibe was at the top of some lists. So was the abundance of food options, green spaces, trails, dog parks, nature preserves and libraries.
But it was at the Environmental Education Center that I’m pretty sure I found Plano’s secret to happiness: its spirit of volunteerism.
The center, with its multiple learning stations and nearby community garden, was buzzing Thursday with enthusiastic volunteers. Many were working with about 100 teens on a field trip from Plano East Senior High, some learning about solar power while others tested water quality in a small creek.
The effort is part of Plano City Hall’s program that is growing a record-setting number of volunteers willing to pitch in to help the community they love.
For the 2017-18 fiscal year, Volunteers in Plano, or VIP, saw more than 10,500 residents log 100,000-plus hours of service — work worth $2.6 million. VIP marked a 28-percent increase from the previous year in new volunteers who lent a hand to city departments such as environment and health, public safety, and parks and recreation.
Plano has led the suburban volunteer game for decades. The city established VIP in 1983 with 30 do-gooders. The operation’s current director, Corina Sadler, told me that in the 35th anniversary year, she heard a new sentiment: “People want to give back to the city that has given them so much.”
Sadler believes the volunteer work of many Plano residents has vaulted the city to the top of the happiness heap. While the disgruntled loud minority may make headlines, most citizens want to partner with City Hall.
A tall stack of brain research backs up Sadler’s perspective: Humans are hard-wired to help others; the more we give, the better our spirits.
According to studies out of Harvard University and the University of Exeter, people who volunteer are happier and healthier. The same white papers show that volunteering also builds social connections and, over time, a stronger, more connected community.
That makes Plano’s massive volunteer effort a powerful one-two punch — good for local government and for the people it serves.
Sadler, a lifelong Collin County resident who has been with VIP for 11 years, fields about 25 calls or emails a day from people who want to volunteer. She also gets questions from budget hawks about exactly what her department does, but she said that when they see the data on outcomes, they are more than satisfied. Happy, you might say.
Most cities have ways for interested citizens to volunteer in animal shelters, libraries and parks. What sets the Plano initiative apart is that its operation is centralized through one office so residents find it easy to hook into ways to help.
“We provide a system where when people want to serve, they can quickly get complete and accurate information — and get started right away without being transferred all around or put off,” Sadler said.
City halls across the U.S. are increasingly leaning toward this volunteer model — and they are calling Plano for advice. In North Texas, Grand Prairie and Frisco are among the cities with one-stop shopping for volunteer opportunities. Fort Worth is working with Plano to do the same.
At the Environmental Education Center, Nalini Joshi, a VIP volunteer for almost three years, said the work makes her happy and has spread the volunteer bug to her teenage daughter, who is now helping at one of the city’s five libraries.
Joshi has lived in Plano for nine years and told me that, despite the staggering growth, she finds the city to be a very welcoming and close-knit community. She said the connections she has made through the volunteer program has made all the difference.
Jaime Bretzmann, who worked alongside Joshi painting outdoor tables as we talked, said, “When you give of yourself it gives you so much more back.” She pointed to the community garden as a perfect example. The work is 100 percent volunteer-driven and all the harvested produce goes to local food pantries.
“How can you not be happy giving back like that? No wonder we won the award,” Bretzmann, a 19-year resident, told me.
Heather Harrington, who oversees the Environmental Education Center’s VIP team, said the “people in these programs are very passionate about wanting to live green and to pass that on. This is their happy place.”
The animal shelter is the first choice of most new volunteers, Sadler said, but many people start in the environmental section because of their concerns about litter. Some opportunities — for instance, dancing at children’s events in a full-body pig or cat costume — are high profile, but the vast majority fill invisible, yet critical, gaps such as math tutoring at the library or storm-drain labeling.
Whatever the assignment, “I see people getting into better physical and mental health and getting out of their rut,” Sadler said. “They go home with a feeling of accomplishment.”
Because Plano is a long-timer among Collin County suburbs, it has to go first in dealing with the prickly challenges that come with exploding growth. But Plano’s age also means it is home to people with deep roots and a desire to help the city they love.
I’m still not sure anyone can prove that Plano is the happiest city in the nation. But based on the joyful volunteers I met Thursday, I don’t think the Wallethub rankers totally missed the mark. I am confident, at least, that there’s no place happier in North Texas.
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