THE ONRUST AND THE CHALLENGER

By EDWIN D. REILLY, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette

 

     I had a dream the other night that every volunteer in this country, disillusioned with the lack of compassion, had set sail for another country.

     As I stood smiling on the pier, I shouted, “Goodbye, creamed chicken. Goodbye, phone committees. So long Disease-of-the-Month. No more saving
     old egg cartons. No more getting out the vote. Au revoir,  playground duty, bake sales, and three-hour meetings. Oh well, who needs them!”

    The hospital was quiet as I passed it. Rooms were void of books, flowers, and voices. The reception desk was vacant…

    The home for the aged was like a tomb. The blind listened for a voice that never came…

           All the social agencies had closed their doors, unable to implement their programs—scouting, recreation, drug control, Big Sisters, Big Brothers,
           YWCA, YMCA, the retarded, the crippled, the lonely, and the abandoned. The schools were strangely quiet—no field trips, no volunteer aides on the
           playgrounds or in the classrooms…
   But the saddest part was the symphony hall, which was dark and would remain that way. So were the museums,
          which had been built and stocked by volunteers with the art treasures of our times. I fought in my sleep to regain a glimpse of the ship of volunteers just
          one more time. It was to be my last glimpse of civilization as I had known it.

                                                                                                –Erma Bombeck,  June 24, 1975

    

      Without volunteers, civilization would not perish, but it would be lot more expensive. Some of us donate to our social and not-for-profit organizations, some give of their time, and many do both. Regrettably, some do neither.

       Just a few days ago, I was saddened by a letter to the editor of the Gazette that complained that WMHT does too much on-air fund raising. Did it not occur to him that he is not compelled to watch? WMHT is just one of a plethora of area not-for-profit organizations that must continually plead for the funds needed to keep its ship afloat. In a moment, I’ll tell you about one that needs funds to launch one.

      Some but few organizations have sufficient income to balance their annual budget in most years, and need only an occasional large fund drive to do something new and special. Other, nascent ones, know that they could balance a reasonable annual budget if only they could accumulate the seed money to get them started.

      In my opinion, the most desperate need of this kind at the moment is that of the Challenger Learning Center, slated to occupy one of the upper floors of the former Carl Company building in 2008. The Challenger Center in Schenectady would be one of  several similar projects currently in operation in this country, the two closest being the ones in Suffern and Rochester, NY. (See www.challenger.org.) Each “flies” hundreds of simulated space missions per year, all (hu)manned by wide-eyed school children whose interest in science and technology is likely to be so enhanced that they will ultimately pursue higher education and thence careers in those fields. If it works in Suffern, then certainly it can work in Schenectady.

     But more than a dollar and a dream is needed, rather 2.7 million dollars; the dream is there. And the Gazette is helping, having agreed to become one of what is hoped will be other Corporate Sponsors. They will donate space about space. But the remaining financial gap is formidable, so I place the urgency of this organization’s plea first. The Center must raise several hundred thousand dollars by November 1 or else risk losing its national charter. So please, do what you can for the good folks who are trying to get the Center going. See  www.challengerlearningcenter.org or call Executive Director Norm Miller at 864-5521 or write to him at P.O. box 1194, Schenectady, NY 12301.

  The ship I alluded to at the top will be a full-size replica of the Dutch ship Onrust, built in Manhattan in 1614. The new ship is being built at the Schenectady County Historical Society’s Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction. We (full disclosure—I am president of SCHS) have loaned a small piece of the Farm for Onrust construction, but the ship is being built by volunteers of  New Netherland Routes, Inc.(NNR), P.O. Box 1710, Schenectady, NY 12301, or see www.themesh.com/onrust/ for more information. NNR is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization formed by Don Rittner, County Historian, as president, Greta Wagle of NNR as vice president, and Gerald DeWeerdt, Director of the Maritime Museum in the Netherlands.  Mr. DeWeerdt, an expert on 17th century Dutch boat building, will be supervising reconstruction. The Onrust will act as a floating ambassador for Schenectady County and its Dutch history as it sails up and down the Mohawk, docking frequently at the County dock to pick-up and discharge tourists visiting the adjacent Mabee Farm.

     To make this second dream (third including Erma’s) come true, NNR needs to raise $10,000 by the end of this year, but $400,000 over the next two years. Onrust is Dutch for “restless.” The first GE person who makes a contribution will trigger ultimate receipt of matching funds, so let’s go restless sailors. All hands on deck!

     A third organization that is already GE-eligible is the Edison Exploratorium on northern Broadway near State Street. Again, fair warning: I am a volunteer consultant to that organization and wrote some of the biographical sketches of GE engineers and scientists whose links may be found at www.edisonexploratorium.org/main.pioneers.htm. The Exploratorium’s concentration on the history of local technology and its pioneers is a perfect complement to both our Historical Society’s emphasis on broader historical themes and to the Schenectady Museum’s goal of building a large science museum downtown. Gifts and bequests to any or all of these three would be most welcome.

     Years ago, charities, museums, etc. were called “non-profit” organizations. For some arcane reason, governmental overseers now use “not-for-profit.” Either way, there will always be business organizations—most recently, Ford, General Motors, and virtually all U.S. airlines come to mind—who say, even if not out loud “We are a non-profit organization. That wasn’t our intent; it just turned out that way.” Perhaps we should send them a cadre of volunteers to help them out. Perhaps not.

 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion pages.