Volunteering in Precinct 4: How and Why to Give Back to the Community

By Kaci Woodrome

Donating time is one of the most precious gifts to anyone or any organization. But when it comes to volunteering, the options can seem endless and overwhelming, especially for a heavily populated area like Harris County that has so many nonprofits needing help from the community. Because the choices are difficult to navigate, it’s often easier to just stay at home.

“You can Google ‘volunteer opportunities’, but where do you begin?” said Gema Barrera, volunteer coordinator for the Precinct 4 Encore! program.

The choice to volunteer is an important one, but many people are unsure of how to get involved and stay involved. Precinct 4 volunteer coordinators simplify the process by assisting with the volunteer job selection and finding opportunities that match interests and abilities.

For anyone over the age of 50, Encore! organizes opportunities throughout Harris County, from the Peanut Butter Cannery and the Houston Food Bank to Northwest Assistance Ministries, Kids Meals, Project C.U.R.E., and more.

“We are definitely expanding,” Barrera said. “A new location we visit is Cypress Assistance Ministries.”

Encore! staff and volunteers also visit senior living locations every month to bring residents a craft activity, games, and entertainment from the 4-Star Stampede Line Dancers.

Volunteers must be 50 and older and can meet at the volunteer destinations or travel on a Precinct 4 bus.

“When we were at the Peanut Butter Cannery just a few months ago, we helped package 6,000 jars, and we only had 15 people volunteer that day,” said Barrera. “Just imagine what we could’ve done if we had more volunteers.”

A lot of newly retired folks are looking for ways to give back to the community and enjoy the camaraderie of volunteering with new friends. “A lot of times they’re ready to retire, but not ready to sit at home and do nothing,” said Barrera.

Barrera makes accommodations for those with physical limitations so they can join the group too.

“I’ll ask for a chair or stool so they can sit and help, or I’ll bring the things to the table so they can participate,” said Barrera. “What are you able to do? We will find something for you!”

According to Gwendolyn Coats, a retiree who enjoys volunteering in the greenhouses at Mercer Botanic Gardens, there’s an easy way to find the right volunteer focus.

“If you’re going to volunteer, do something that you like,” said Coats. “Don’t just volunteer to volunteer – you won’t be happy with it long. Do something that really interests you.”

“The plants are therapeutic for me,” said Coats, who has enjoyed spending two days a week in the Mercer greenhouses since becoming a volunteer in March 2019.

She was recognized as the “Newcomer of the Year” at Mercer’s annual volunteer appreciation luncheon for contributing more than 200 hours in 2019 – an accomplishment that proves she truly loves volunteering there.

“I’m retired now. I don’t want to go work on a job. I just want to help and give back to the community,” Coats said.

The impact of volunteering is not always immediate, and it can be challenging to recognize how contributions make a lasting impact.

For example, the plants grown at Mercer’s greenhouses are sold through plant sales hosted by The Mercer Society. The proceeds then go back into the gardens for children’s activities, educational programming, and innovative research for plant conservation.

For some, like Donna and Phillip Ellison, volunteering at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center is important so they can help pass along the traditions of Texas and American history while creating a legacy of service for their family.

“We enjoy being outdoors, we enjoy service, we enjoy sharing our knowledge and teaching,” said Donna Ellison. “We’ve passed that on to our girls, so for an activity at Jones Park like Pioneer Day, it spoke to all of our interests and our gifts and our available time.”

When the family first visited Pioneer Day at Jones Park in 2004, their daughters enjoyed dressing up in the event’s pioneer clothing so much that it inspired the Ellisons to sign up as volunteers at the park.

As the Ellison family grew, the pastime of volunteering continued. Sharing the value of service with their children while getting to play at the same time was one of the most attractive qualities of Jones Park. Over the past 15 years, all seven family members have volunteered together at Jones Park whenever possible.

“The rangers are so kind to everyone, and they really treat the kids as full-fledged volunteers,” said Donna Ellison. “When they go to work at a station and help demonstrate, they are equal volunteers whether they’re 8 or 10 years old or whether they’re an adult.”

Jones Park also welcomes volunteers interested in helping with trail maintenance or invasive species removal, arts and crafts, or preparation for its many events and programs.

What motivates volunteers to action? According to Phillip Ellison, it’s “the whole idea of being tied to something and contributing to something and being part of the community.”

Precinct 4 is always seeking new volunteers and extra hands to help. Whether it’s meeting new people, learning new skills, educating others, or working together as family, Precinct 4 has plenty of meaningful volunteer opportunities to turn the valuable gift of time into a labor of love.



Precinct 4 provides volunteer opportunities at a variety of special events throughout the year, as well as at tree planting and invasive plant removal events along the Spring Creek Greenway.

To learn more about volunteering at any Precinct 4 park or event, please contact the volunteer coordinators and staff listed below.

Precinct 4 Encore!: Gema Barrera
Special Events: Amy Sutton
Mercer Botanic Gardens: Jamie Hartwell
Jones Park: Brent Wilkins
Legacy Trees Program: Laura Medick