INTERVIEW BY Martha Thomas     PORTRAIT BY Mary C. Gardella


Joan Driessen is the executive director of the Association of Community Services of Howard County (ACS), an organization that has informed, connected and advocated for the nonprofit community in Howard opportunites_knockCounty for more than 50 years. With a master’s degree in social work and applied behavior analysis from the University of Michigan, Driessen has devoted her career to helping families and organizations. She represents the interests of the nonprofit community on numerous boards, task forces and committees. Joan and her husband, Patrick, raised their four children in Columbia where they have lived for more than 32 years.

Q Do you feel that people in Howard County are engaged in the community?
For being located between two big cities, we really do have a community here, where people invest themselves in truly trying to make it a better place to live. This creates a self-sustaining cycle: People invest themselves, and this creates pride in community. Pride translates into greater enjoyment, and that leads to continued contributions. People enter that cycle in different ways. There’s a Howard County Gives campaign that talks about supporting our community through financial contributions. But that is just one way. People also look for more active opportunities that give them satisfaction

Q What might those opportunities involve?
It’s the doing. Sometimes it’s small, like the donations to the Howard County food bank at Wegman’s during holiday time. It’s the only time I collect coupons. When I go through the line, whatever I get off on my bill I contribute.

Q Should we be thinking about giving throughout the year?
We tend to think about giving in very noticeable ways at the holidays. People also use that time to set an example for their children. It’s such a time of receiving; it’s a good time to show kids how great it feels to give to others. During holiday times, problems are brought to our attention.

Q What type of volunteering can we do throughout the year?
There’s a volunteer center located within the Columbia Association where you can go to explore many opportunities for becoming involved. They have the full spectrum. Choosing a good volunteer activity is based on what you like to do, what time, talents and skills you have to offer. Many organizations are set up to have people giving throughout the year. Neighbor Ride is one. You take an hour or two out of the week to drive an older adult to an appointment. If you talk with volunteers, they’ll tell you about the great relationships that blossom from it. You’ll find the same drivers give the same people rides over and over.

Q Is Howard County small enough so what goes around literally comes around?
I don’t think there’s any question.
It started as a small, rural community. Columbia was created with pretty special people who chose to be part of something.
While I may not need a lot right now, I know there are people out there who will answer the call when I do. It’s a safety net. Not necessarily financial. It’s the safety net of knowing there are people out there who will respond. I’ve been here since 1983, and that’s largely why I’m still here. I know some may think the dream may be dying, I don’t think it is at all.

Q Howard County has all of these great metrics – with education, income and the like, but there are problems beneath the surface.
We hide poverty well in this county. It’s a very expensive place to live; a lot of people are living on the edge. Rent is expensive, transportation is difficult, so you need a car to get around. We have a large service sector in the community. People are living paycheck to paycheck. A lot of these people may make too much to get public support, but not enough to live comfortably. Take child care. We want people to work, but for an infant, the average cost is $17,400 a year. For child care. That is crazy expensive. For a family of four, with an infant and a preschooler, it costs $90,000 a year just to afford the basics.

Q So the people who bag your groceries at Wegman’s or serve you in a coffee shop can’t afford to live here.
And our teachers, our firefighters and police. Most of our children who grew up here and come back are in for a rude surprise. You need to make a decent income to live here and even more to engage in some of the activities we’re so proud of.

Q Should people looking to start volunteering start slowly, the same way you would embark on an exercise program?
You have to look inside yourself and ask, ‘What do I really like to do?” I tell parents whose kids go off to college, and they miss them, I suggest mentoring. It’s social, it’s academic, it gives that mentee a reliable person to talk with – it’s good for both parties. Some are really into athletics, so they’ll raise money by running or walking.

Q This is a great answer. You’re combining exercise and volunteering.
That’s one of the trends in fundraising – organizing these races, these marathons, even the 5k walks, which is a bit more my speed.

Q You meet people, learn about organizations, then you have more ownership and skin in the game so might get involved in other activities.

Q What about time banks? Where retired professionals can trade, say, legal or accounting help, hour for hour, for something like yard work?
I know that Columbia Association has been trying to promote time banking for a number of years. I’m not sure it has gained as much traction as it should. It’s a great concept. Community is created through connections, so when you make those connections it increases the sense of community.

Q Do you have more time now that your kids are out of the house?
When my kids were around, I did it in different ways. My kids were in sports, and just providing transportation for other kids could be helpful. When my kids were young, they played soccer. We knew some kids who had recently emigrated but didn’t have transportation. It was a great opportunity to take them with us – for all of us.

Q That’s a good idea. If someone has a little time, just offering to help a neighbor. That would be a wonderful gift to any overworked parent.
It’s sometimes nice for kids to have another adult to develop a relationship with and talk with, outside of mom and dad.

Q A lot of people are very busy – many Howard County residents are in mid career when it’s hard to find extra time.
But a lot of people don’t even think of what they do as volunteer. For example, when my kids were small, we’d gather up all the bikes and old sports equipment, and the P.E. teacher at Swansfield Elementary School would find people who could use them. We now have a Swansfield giving circle. Over the holidays, they send us a list of needs for different families. We have a great time getting together and wrapping gifts. It’s as much for us as it is for them. *

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