Los Gatos Builds Community Unity

“Imagine what could be done if you had 50 volunteers, or a hundred or more.” This was the challenge presented by the Los Gatos Town Council and the idea behind the creation of Community Unity. 

Los Gatos is one of Santa Clara County’s oldest communities, with 28,850 residents living in a 14 square mile area. It prides itself on being a “self-contained community” that has kept its small town atmosphere. The town has a long history of volunteer involvement; there are many successful local nonprofits, service clubs and other organizations that benefit greatly from local volunteers. The Community Unity project leveraged those individual efforts into a partnership that matches community and agency needs with volunteers on the broadest scale.

The town’s Community Services Department was identified to work with the town council to create and maintain Community Unity as a grassroots community effort. The first step was to identify the project’s goal: “To create a continuing process that results in volunteer efforts aimed at maintaining and improving community, building community partnerships and fostering civic pride.”

Once this goal was established, the town began to address the organizational challenges and determine how to:

  • Engage the community;
  • Organize and communicate with volunteers and service groups;
  • Establish a means of communication to be used between project organizers and interested individuals and groups to create and maintain partnerships;
  • Identify local volunteer projects that could be successfully completed without town staff supervision; and
  • Sustain long-term community-based and organized projects that may involve agencies and communities outside of Los Gatos.

Engaging the Community

The 2005 State of the Town Address was used to introduce the concept of Community Unity, citing the challenge of “uniting Los Gatans under a banner of service. … In the simplest of terms, the idea is to gather all of the town service-minded organizations and individuals together, brainstorm our community needs, prioritize those needs and then tackle them together,” said Mayor Mike Wasserman. During the month following the State of the Town Address, a number of other efforts were used to educate and engage the community, including the following:

  • The mayor presented Community Unity to 40 groups in 30 days. Among those addressed were service clubs, religious groups, school groups, nonprofit organizations, senior service organizations, teen service and social clubs, and sports leagues.
  • The concept of Community Unity was highlighted in local newspapers.
  • The full text of the State of the Town Address and information about Community Unity were posted on the town website.
  • Representatives from service-oriented organizations, town volunteers and other members of the community were invited to a kick-off meeting. All were asked to submit three projects they would like to see accomplished by volunteers.

Organizing and Communicating With Volunteers and Service Groups

Beginning in March 2005, Community Unity meetings were held every six months to generate new projects, hear about successfully completed projects and allow participants to network. Between meetings, volunteers and organizations communicated through e-mail as well as articles and ads in the local newspaper, information posted on the town website, announcements on the local cable television station and targeted mailings.

Communication Between Project Organizers and Interested Parties

A Community Unity page was created for the town website. This page included a list of all Community Unity projects, a description of each project and e-mail addresses for each volunteer. The public was encouraged to volunteer for a project and/or to contact anyone listed with a project for more information. Service groups were encouraged to adopt a project or to submit a new one of their own, and an e-mail notification list was created to notify subscribers about newly listed projects.

Local Volunteer Projects

At the first Community Unity meeting participants identified 88 community projects, which they divided into the following categories:

  • Seniors and at-risk populations;
  • Youth;
  • General community; and
  • Volunteers/partnerships needed.

All of the projects identified were ranked in order of priority, and teams were formed to focus on the following top eight:

  1. Performing general home repair;
  2. Delivering baskets to the homebound;
  3. Painting the meeting room of a local nonprofit adult day services facility;
  4. Clearing and maintaining Los Gatos outdoor trails;
  5. Scouting a location for an “Under 21 Club”;
  6. Collecting books to benefit the public library;
  7. Designing and installing a community garden; and
  8. Maintaining county parks and trails.

In the first six months, six of these projects were completed, and this process was repeated at subsequent meetings.

Long-Term Community-Based Projects Outside Los Gatos

The first Community Unity meeting identified many local projects and promoted partnerships within Los Gatos. It also helped to raise awareness of what can be accomplished by groups working together, and this expanded the boundaries of Community Unity. After Hurricane Katrina, many Los Gatos groups worked together to raise funds and send supplies to the Gulf Coast. The Community Unity webpage was used to advertise disaster relief projects, and at the September 2005 Community Unity meeting, a Katrina Consortium was proposed to continue relief efforts. The consortium has since “adopted” the community of Pascagoula, Miss., to help it recover in the coming years. The empowerment of volunteers at the Community Unity meetings resulted in collaborations that initially focused on local needs but quickly expanded to serve others.

In a year and a half, Community Unity has seen the completion of at least 50 projects. It has created coalitions and friendships, expanded its own horizons and truly accomplished its goal. Community Unity has answered the initial challenge: “Imagine what could be done if you had 50 volunteers, or a hundred or more.”

Contact: Susan Buxton, volunteer services coordinator, Community Services Department; phone: (408) 354-6824; e-mail: sbuxton@losgatosca.gov

The Town of Los Gatos won an Award for Excellence in the Enhancing Public Trust, Ethics and Community Involvement category of the 2006 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more information about the awards program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.

This article appears in the December 2006 issue of Western City
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