Meet Volunteer Jenn Sykes
It's National Volunteer Month. Consider giving your time.
Hillsborough resident Jenn Sykes knows more than a thing or two about the town. She’s been volunteering on our appointed boards since moving to West Hillsborough in 2016.
Sykes, who has lived on and off in Hillsborough for 15 years, just cycled off the Planning Board after two three-year terms. She additionally served several years as a Planning Board representative to the Board of Adjustment and currently still volunteers on the Water and Sewer Advisory Committee.
We recently caught up with her in honor of National Volunteer Month. Check our Q&A with her.
Q: What made you get involved in this volunteer work?
A: In high school and undergrad, I spent a lot of time volunteering with different organizations, ranging from highway cleanups to running weekend camps for gifted kids to lobbying the Virginia state government around higher education policy. Giving back to my community was something my high school teachers pushed me to do, and it’s stuck to this day. Because of that volunteer work in high school, I grew up directly seeing how nonprofit support and government can help people survive.
When I moved to West Hillsborough, I had more time on my hands to volunteer and I heard about the town advisory board opportunities. It seemed a good fit for my training in policy and economics, compared to my 9-to-5 job in the programming and statistics side of my studies.
Q: Was there any specific experience you had that made you think you could be an asset to a particular board?
A: I studied a fair number of economic development and budgetary policies in undergrad and grad school but wasn't using those skills in my job. Volunteering lets me use those parts of my training so they don't go rusty.
As well, I’m very aware that a lot of people don’t have the time, interest, or understanding of the complexities of government and regulation, but people do understand that the decisions made at these levels affect them — water rates immediately come to mind for anyone on a fixed income. I’ve got the training and the skills to try and make sure people who don’t have the ability to advocate for themselves can.
Q: What do you find rewarding about the work?
A: My undergrad thesis was an analysis of what the most effective ways are for marginalized groups to get what they want out of public policy; I spent hours in a library reading about lobbying approaches and running probit models on data to answer that question. So being able to actually use some of what my research focused on while helping people use government to their advantage is one of the most rewarding and impactful things I think anyone would actually be able to do.
Q: What has the time commitment been typically in a month?
A: Meetings are about two hours apiece, with packet reading beforehand of about one hour. I also make a point to try and tell my neighbors if something on the docket matters to them.
Q: Do you feel like you have made a difference to the community through this work and how?
A: People tell me I have! I spend a lot of time talking to my neighbors, business owners, or other people around town to make sure they’re aware of not just what’s being proposed that could impact them but how to engage with government to get what they need. A lot of times people feel removed from government: they abstractly understand that what bureaucrats and elected officials do have an impact on them, but they don’t know how to have their voices heard. Having people say “thanks” for bringing up an issue they’ve mentioned to me while I’m walking my dogs or asking me to clarify a public meeting letter they got when they see me at the Nickel probably means I’m helping make a better community.
Q: What do you like best about volunteering for the town?
A: Helping people better understand how these decisions impact them and what they can do to secure better outcomes for themselves is rewarding. And being able to use some rarely used skills to do it is certainly a good thing.
Q: Do you have anything else you would like to say?
A: The best way to have a good government is to be involved, so I encourage everyone who has the time and curiosity to try it. Or at least attend a public meeting to say your piece. This is a democracy — make sure to use it to your advantage!
The town periodically has openings on its eight appointed boards. Currently, the Planning Board is recruiting for an in-town representative. Whether you’re interested in development, the Historic District, trees, parks and recreation, tourism, or water and sewer services, we’ve got something for you! Check out the boards and fill out a volunteer application on the town’s website. See the Volunteer Opportunities page for additional ways to get involved.