By Adam Randall
Matt Lechel’s office life isn’t about sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen. On days such as one recent spring Saturday, as the program coordinator of the Kalamazoo Safety Neighborhood Initiative for Volunteer Kalamazoo, Lechel interacts with volunteers from dozens of sites around the city.
This particular Saturday was Western Michigan University’s Spring Into the Streets, an annual day of service in which hundreds of WMU students volunteer around the Kalamazoo area.
“I’ve really found service to be a valuable professional development tool and personal development tool,” he said. “I think volunteering is a way you can help solve community problems; you can take matters into your own hands. Anyone can complain about something but only a few people do something.”
Outside of his work with Volunteer Kalamazoo, Lechel also gives back to the community as a volunteer by sitting on a number of boards like the People’s Food Co-op, Kalamazoo County Parks Commission, the 60th District service office and the Kalamazoo County Fair Council, which he attributes to his work with Volunteer Kalamazoo as a door opening opportunity within the community.
“Kalamazoo is a community to me where doors are really open for you,” he said. “If you want to be involved in something, you can show up and get involved. It’s one of those communities that are small enough to be involved but large enough to have interesting things attract you and that are unique.”
Around town, Lechel is known by the community and is recognized when he walks into places like the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, which serves as a homeless shelter and provides meals and the Vine Neighborhood Association, which acts as a connection between residents and the neighborhood.
A Saginaw native, Lechel grew up volunteering and recalls his parents as “civically minded.” Recently, the Lechel family received a volunteer award for their extensive volunteer work in the Saginaw area.
Lechel recalls his mom as always working in the nonprofit field. At one time she worked for a local hospital as a volunteer manager managing thousands of volunteers. She now runs a small reading literacy program mentoring students in Saginaw. His dad worked for the county government but was also involved in volunteerism.
Lechel moved to Kalamazoo and attended WMU for his undergraduate studies and then graduated with a master’s degree in public administration and chose to stay in the community.
In comparison to his Saginaw life, Lechel sees Kalamazoo as a unique community and likes the music scene, arts and culture.
“It’s definitely a love affair with Kalamazoo,” he said. “I like this community a lot.”
On a normal business day, Lechel solicits projects for days of service, registers volunteers or meets with potential partners about designing a new project. An example, says Lechel, would be a $25,000 grant that was written with Mayor Bobby Hopewell for Cities of Service, which is founded by 17 mayors around the country finding ways to utilize local volunteers, according to their website.
However, on this particular day of service, the only sounds that can be heard are a slight howl of the wind and the crinkling of the trash bags being filled by students as Lechel observes their work.
Volunteer days all but run smoothly said Lechel, as, “there are almost always small fires to put out and things to troubleshoot and figure out.” Every site usually has a project leader and Lechel trys to reserve himself as an observer.
Lechel’s position with Volunteer Kalamazoo is scheduled to end sometime in 2013. The position was established by the Volunteer Generation Fund, a federal grant that was awarded to Volunteer Kalamazoo, which was one of seven communities in Michigan to receive one. The grant helps facilitate four community wide service days a year, said Lechel.
“I’m positive volunteerism will be a part of my life no matter what. I will still be a huge advocate for Volunteer Kalamazoo even if I don’t work there, but hopefully I do.”
Reflecting on his time in Kalamazoo, Lechel believes that he and the Volunteer Kalamazoo organization has made a definite impact on the community.
“Thousands of volunteers every year are getting connected to volunteer opportunities because of Volunteer Kalamazoo,” he said. “They are not only getting connected to volunteer opportunities but also to opportunities that interest them.”