Want to get ‘more involved’ in Fort Wayne? Longtime resident offers tips to volunteer

Want to know how to get plugged into Fort Wayne’s community? Local resident Denise Porter is happy to help.

When it comes to Fort Wayne, Porter, in many ways, has done it all. She has worked in engagement services at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne; she has worked for the City of Fort Wayne, and she has worked for Fort Wayne Newspapers. More recently, she has taught continuing education classes for Purdue University Fort Wayne, and along the way, she has volunteered and has been an integral part of civic life in the city.  

“How did I get involved with being involved?” she says. “It’s been almost a lifelong thing for me. I talk to people, and I tell them where to go.” 

Denise Porter flips through her book of resources at River's Edge, a supportive housing complex on Spy Run Ave. Ext. in Fort Wayne.

As an employee of the city and at city institutions, Porter frequently shared her wealth of information and expertise with locals. She continues to do the same in her retirement.

The COVID-19 pandemic, according to Porter, is shining a light on the importance of being a part of and contributing to your local community—no matter where you live.
 
“People did not realize how interconnected we all are,” Porter says. 

Pete Barbaruolo dips a plate during "Super Saturday" a free monthly community meal for the housing members at River's Edge. River's Edge is a supportive housing complex on Spy Run Ave. Ext.

She believes getting involved and connecting with other people, especially around an important cause, can be a panacea for many aspects of mental health, which affects everyone. 

“Mental health is a crisis of all ages, whether you’re a lonely senior citizen or a kid in high school,” she says.

Kent Carter dips a plate during "Super Saturday" a free monthly community meal for the housing members at River's Edge. River's Edge is a supportive housing complex on Spy Run Ave. Ext. in Fort Wayne.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Porter to learn more about how people of all ages can get more involved in the local community, boosting their spirits through connection and giving back.

The Volunteer Center

For those looking to get involved by volunteering, look no further than the Volunteer Center, which connects people who want to volunteer with organizations around the city that need assistance. A person connecting with the Volunteer Center for the first time will speak with someone who, says Porter, “will question you a little bit about what your interests are, and they will suggest to you organizations or things that you can do that will match what you need.”

David Andrews dips a plate during "Super Saturday" a free monthly community meal for the housing members at River's Edge. River's Edge is a supportive housing complex on Spy Run Ave. Ext. in Fort Wayne.

Volunteer opportunities abound on the Volunteer Center’s website. As of August 25, opportunities included being a Halloween volunteer at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, working in veteran-to-veteran engagement through Parkview Hospice, and serving as a food bank assistant with Wellspring Interfaith Social Services, plus many others.

“For people who are looking for what to do, the Volunteer Center is a wonderful place to at least look through the list and see hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities,” Porter says.

Denise Porter flips through her book of resources at River's Edge, a supportive housing complex on Spy Run Ave. Ext. in Fort Wayne.

Allen County Public Library

Finding ways to immerse oneself in a community, especially if someone is new, can be intimidating. 

“It’s no wonder people get lost and think: Where do I start?” Porter says. “It’s a lot of stuff! But you can do it one step at a time, and sometimes, one of the places you can start is the Allen County Public Library.” 

The Allen County Public Library offers physical and digital resources on mental health and wellbeing.

The library, which has its Main Branch Downtown and 13 branches across the city and surrounding area, has been around for more than 125 years. While the library is home to millions of books, periodicals, and other types of information, it offers far more. Allen County residents can hone their television production skills at Access Fort Wayne, a multimedia studio located at the Main Branch. The Library’s Audio Reading Service uses volunteers to read aloud to people who are unable to interpret written communication. The Seed Library, located at the Little Turtle branch, provides seeds for plants that are native to the region. People who are researching their family tree will find the Library’s Genealogy Center invaluable. The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection and the Rolland Center for Lincoln Research are devoted to information having to do with the life of President Abraham Lincoln.

Volunteers are also needed. Every year, more than a thousand people give of their time and talents to the Allen County Public Library, both at the main location and at the 13 other branches throughout Fort Wayne and its environs.

NeighborLink

Founded in 2003 in Fort Wayne, NeighborLink puts GPS technology to use in enabling neighbors to connect with each other and meet each other’s needs. Anyone can request a project on NeighborLink’s website, which includes, but is not limited to, yard work and snow removal, as well as more complex tasks, such as plumbing and construction.

Eric Wood, Executive Director and Megan Chandler, Development Coordinator of NeighborLink work together to clear leaves while volunteering at a home in Fort Wayne.

If you’re a volunteer, you can also visit the website to claim projects to work on. The NeighborLink Network has expanded to include more locations throughout Indiana, even as far away as Ohio, Kentucky, and Alabama.

"Earlier this summer, when we had the derecho go through; those leaves and broken limbs didn’t pick themselves up, so somebody had to be willing to help somebody else,” Porter says. “By registering your request with an organization like NeighborLink, people who want to help can find out that there are people in their own neighborhood that they didn’t realize needed that kind of assistance.”

Festivals

Fort Wayne is a city of festivals, which include the Three Rivers Festival, Johnny Appleseed Festival, Fort Wayne Music Festival, BuskerFest, Arab Fest, GermanFest, BBQ RibFest, Pride Fest, Allen County Fair, and more.

More than 700 volunteers make the Three Rivers Festival possible.

“I used to be on the board for the Three Rivers Festival, and you could not do a festival like that without volunteers,” says Porter. “A lot of volunteers in this community might work on something of that nature in the winter or early spring, but all we ever see, as the public, is the seven to 10 days in the summer when you see floats and the merry-go-rounds and all of that, but it took a lot to pull that stuff together, clean it up, and get DJs.”

Associated Churches

For people of faith, church is a great starting point for getting involved, and Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, which brings together churches, volunteers, and businesses, can fill a need for people who are new to the area or who do not have a home congregation.

“Associated Churches can link you with almost all of the denominations and groups here; they’re not necessarily just Christian-based, but there are over 400 churches in the Fort Wayne area,” says Porter. “A lot of them handle food banks; a lot of them do back-to-school fairs; and a lot of them work with people who have resettled here,” such as refugees and immigrants from Myanmar.

Associated Churches, 602 E. Wayne St. Fort Wayne

Associated Churches has specific programs that cater to military families and to low-income families with newborn babies. Its Neighborhood Food Network connects those in need with a network of local food pantries.

Community Harvest Food Bank, 999 E. Tillman Rd. Fort Wayne.

Humane Fort Wayne

Not all Fort Wayne residents walk on two legs, and many opportunities exist to aid our canine and feline co-citizens, as well as their human companions—some of whom may be having a hard time and are trying to get back on their feet.

“One of the things that’s always a problem with housing people who have been homeless is some people don’t want to give up their pet to go into a particular rental situation, so the humane shelters help people maintain their pet while they’re trying to figure out which road they want to go,” says Porter.

Denise Porter shows off some of the resource information hung up on the wall at River's Edge, a supportive housing complex on Spy Run Ave. Ext.

Broader volunteer opportunities with Humane Fort Wayne include Doggy Day Out pickups, working with K9 Social Groups, and more. Plus, pet foster families are always needed to help shelter pets make the transition to their forever homes.

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While the aforementioned institutions and organizations are great starting points for getting involved, there are many informal ways to contribute and belong in Fort Wayne. Something as simple as weather watching can provide a vital service. 

“If you aren’t able to physically do something, maybe you can put a rain gauge in your backyard, or watch which way the winds are blowing and things of that nature,” Porter says. “You can do anything once you decide you want to do something in our community.”

This story is part of a series on the 8 Domains of Livability in Northeast Indiana, underwritten by AARP.

Read more articles by AJ Hughes.