After starting a family, Jocelyn Cook was inspired to find a way to positively contribute to her Massachusetts community. However, she said she hit multiple barriers in trying to find volunteer opportunities. Not content with simply giving up the search, she decided to leave her career in order to create her own organization where anyone, of any age and with any interest, could find ways to give back to those in need within the area. Five years later, Jocelyn serves as the Executive Director of SPUR with the mission of empowering those around her to enrich the lives of others and impact the world.
SPUR organizes multiple volunteer opportunities throughout the year, including backpack and holiday gift drives, beach cleanups, and work days in the organization’s organic food garden. In 2018, the organization had 677 unique individuals volunteer over a combined 2,500 times.
“I’m really, really proud of what the communities who engage with SPUR are building,” Jocelyn said. “I’m just one person who had an idea, but SPUR works because people choose to engage with it.”
Can you describe what SPUR does?
The easiest way I describe it is we cultivate a community of doers by providing an array of multigenerational volunteer opportunities, youth enrichment programs, and meet basic needs through two large drives that we do every year, one for backpacks and one for holiday gifts.
Describe your volunteer role with SPUR.
I am the Volunteer Executive Director. I started SPUR almost five years ago. I stepped away from my career in international affairs in order to start the organization and build it to a point of sustainable thriving.
What inspired you to step away from your career to start this organization?
It was a couple things. One was I had started a family and was trying to find a way that I could get involved in a meaningful way where I could still be fulfilling my heart’s desire. I found barrier after barrier trying to volunteer and I thought it was mind-blowing that as individuals there are so many obstacles to volunteering, whether it’s you don’t know where you go to do it, or you want to do something hyper local where you live, or you want to involve your kids. The more I started thinking about this, the more I was like, I just have to create an organization where everyone is welcome to volunteer and the amount of time or contribution they give is valued, and it’s not like the volunteer walks away thinking they didn’t do enough or it wasn’t enough. We should all be empowered to make our impact on the world.
Can you describe the different volunteer opportunities you offer?
We have a lot of different volunteer opportunities. One of the things that I think is really awesome about the work we do is we try to do all kinds of things, understanding not everything we offer will speak to everyone’s heart. We do a monthly meal service at a shelter; we have an organic garden where we grow produce for local food pantries; we do beach clean ups, harbor cleanups; we rake leaves in the fall for individuals who physically can’t do it and financially can’t afford to have someone do it. We have literally hundreds of volunteer opportunities around both of our drives, where volunteers will come and fill backpacks with school supplies. We just gave out 677 brand new backpacks full of school supplies. Around the holidays we’ll do it again with what we call ‘Bundles of Cheer,’ which are wish lists from each child that get submitted and sponsors go shopping and return everything to us in a pillowcase. Right now we have a pillowcase-sewing volunteer opportunity once a month at our office, making gorgeous, handmade pillowcases. We have all different kinds of stuff, so hopefully something resonates with someone. We do a personal shopping thing in the spring for girls to find formal wear to attend their high school proms, interview prep with at-risk youth – really tons of different things.
Where do you focus your volunteer efforts?
We focus on the four immediate communities: Marblehead, Salem, Swampscott and Lynn. Everything is within a 15-minute drive and that’s deeply intentional. If people are citing one of their top reasons for not volunteering is a lack of time, I wanted to remove that obstacle right off the bat and say, “You don’t have to travel far, it’s in your own community.” I think, again, that one of the things that really resonates with people is that they’re doing something local. What excites me about it is that it invites people into a rhythm of life of volunteering that, I would contend, is integral to the fabric of our society as humans, and by doing that we can maybe try out things we wouldn’t normally. For example, if someone hasn’t volunteered before the idea of serving food at a shelter may or may not pose trepidation. Originally, we will see a volunteer start out by just cooking the food because volunteers cook at home and then drop it off to us. They’ll cook the food and then through repeat exposure we see volunteers moving from strictly cooking to coming in and actually serving the food at the shelter. We see this growth in our engagement of people taking larger and larger steps to other volunteer opportunities.
What kind of feedback have you received from people who volunteer with the program?
The feedback has been really exciting and I think it deeply affirms the mission. The name SPUR is not an acronym. We use it as a verb: to spur good deeds. We hope that everything we do is a ripple effect, because doing good feels good and then you want to do more. That’s really consistent with the feedback we receive. People feel valued and honored for the contributions they make and they like to know that they can come to us for meaningful ways to make an impact in the local community. I think, too, one of the things we focus on with the fact that we provide multigenerational volunteer experiences, is really trying to get all individuals to recognize volunteering as the norm and not a checkbox on their college application or job interview or something like that. I’ve had a lot of beautiful opportunities to talk to people like that. I think that all of those things are consistently the feedback we receive, about just how people feel a greater sense of connectedness with their community, are happier, are meeting neighbors and stuff like that. The ripple effect as intended is definitely happening.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
As a young organization, there’s lots of exciting future plans. I think the key part is having to thoughtfully implement those in a way that doesn’t detract from the foundation that’s been built. We just expanded our garden, for example, so one of the things we’re excited about next year is we just added 20 new garden beds to the garden. We expect to double our yield of organic produce for the local food pantries. This spring, we started a food rescue program where we’ve been picking up food from local restaurants and markets that otherwise would have gone to waste and we’re redirecting it to programs who can benefit from it. We’re integrating our fresh-grown produce into our food rescue program, which is a very exciting thing.
We did our first summer camp this year where we worked with 11- to 13-year-olds, exposed them to safe use of power tools, how to read architectural plans. Then, over the course of two weeks they built a 7-foot by 10-foot playhouse. That was then fully constructed and then transported by fork lift and flatbed truck to a neighboring town, one of the four towns we work in, and delivered to a social service agency. Now they’re using that playhouse that these kids built through our camp for therapy with their pediatric clients.
I think just continuing to expand on some of the great programs we already have going and increasing our volunteer offerings takes a surprising amount of work, organizing volunteer activities particularly for hundreds of people. On September 15, we had 106 volunteers go out and clean up trash and debris from the harbor and beaches via paddle board and kayak and motorboat as well as on land, so just the logistics of that is huge. So our future immediate plans are really strengthening those offerings, how can we have more volunteer opportunities, and how can we just continually evaluate what we’re doing and are we doing it well, what is the impact we’re making and are we continuing to grow or engage. Because that’s our mission, to cultivate doers and by doing that we are meeting needs. One of the things I love about SPUR is it’s a twofer, because we focus on growing a community of people who are passionate about getting involved and making a tangible difference in their communities, and by that they are relieving needs and making an impact for others as well.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
There’s obviously a lot that is rewarding, but one thing that is super rewarding for me is to now have two young kids. I started SPUR five years ago and I’ve got an eight-year-old and a six-year-old so SPUR has always been a part of their lives. One thing that is very rewarding to me is seeing their constant exposure to our way of life and just getting involved and doing things. It’s really rewarding for me to see them just being helpful, or picking up trash that’s blowing down the street, or making their plans for their birthday money or their allowance money. Those things are very rewarding as a parent who can see how my job, if you will, impacts them.
Stepping beyond that, it’s really, really exciting to me when I have those conversations with people who talk about the direct needs that were met. I was recently talking to a mom whose son has volunteered with us for the last two years. He just went off to college, it’s his first semester. She remarked that she was so thankful for his experience with SPUR because he’s doing his first semester abroad and he already–before he went over there–reached out and identified a nonprofit that he wanted to serve with. They’re supporting the homeless community over there at this organization. She was like, “I know that’s a direct impact of his time with you and really opening up his heart to this type of work.” So I love hearing about the kind of, in some ways immeasurable, seeds that are planted that have the potential to grow way beyond our communities. I love that and I think it’s so imperative today that we have people who are thinking beyond themselves. I find that deeply rewarding.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I’ve learned a lot. I have learned a lot of areas where I really need a good team around me. I’m a huge visionary but also a big, strong leader and I have had to learn how to take a step back, relax and trust my team; to take care of myself and understand that they said they would do the social media posts, so they’ll get it done, for example. This is my baby and I want to drive and make the impact the community deserves.
One thing I think I’ve learned or maybe had affirmed is truly just how much people want to do something. I often tell people I generally believe we all want to do something but no one wants to feel like a failure and step out and do it, and I think through SPUR I’ve seen or had that affirmed, that people have the freedom to come to our organization to make an impact in the world. I’ve learned that people are really passionate and will go above and beyond for things that they believe in. I’ve learned that little kids are very committed and super strong.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I think I would just want people to know that you don’t have to do something big and huge to change the world. You just have to do your little part of good. I think if everyone, just once a day even, could connect to doing one kind thing or one good thing or one thing where they said, “Oh, I’m going to do that,” then we as a society would be shocked at the impact that could be made. An example, I was driving down the road over the winter and a tree had fallen down. Everyone was going around this tree, and my son said, “Oh, Mom, someone should do something about that.” And I said, “You’re right, someone should, and we’re someone.” We have the ability to do that and I think if people would just stop saying, “Oh, someone should do something about that,” and realize we are that someone, because we all have the power to do something and we should just do it. I think that’s one of the things I hope people take away from this piece or just SPUR in general, is that we all have power to spur love and good deeds. We just have to do it and stop waiting or stop saying we’re too busy or stop coming up with all these reasons why it’s not enough, because everything is enough. We just have to do it.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Jocelyn? Find local volunteer opportunities.