What would we do without our volunteers?
24 April 2006
by Jennifer Morey
Eureka, CA, USA: It's an oft-heard exclamation in Humboldt County and around the world: “What would we do without our volunteers?”
From hospitals to homeless services, libraries to labour unions and Red Cross to Redwood State Parks, the North Coast's volunteers are frequently the mortar that holds the bricks together for non-profit organizations.
Beginning today through next Saturday is National Volunteer Week, held annually and sponsored by the Points of Light Foundation. The observance is about saying “thank you” to one of America's most valuable assets and calling the public's attention to everything volunteers do to improve their communities. The foundation's website offers a free “2006 National Volunteer Week toolkit” to help organizations plan and publicize their recognition activities. The kit even includes a form letter for requesting a proclamation from one's city or county government.
National Volunteer Week began in 1974 when President Richard Nixon signed an executive order establishing the week as an annual celebration of volunteering. Points of Light has chosen “Inspire By Example” as the theme for this year's National Volunteer Week because it reflects the power volunteers have to inspire the people they help, as well as to inspire others to serve.
Julie Ryan, who has worked for the past year and a half as part of AmeriCorps' “Promise Fellows” programme, finds the volunteers with whom she works to be especially inspiring, in part because of their age.
”Part of my job focuses on serving youth in the community and promoting youth volunteerism,” said Ryan, who is one of the volunteer coordinators at the Volunteer Centre of the Redwoods. “You get to know the kids in a different way. When you're not a teacher and you're working with kids, there's a different dynamic. I believe it's really important to be responsible and accountable.”
In that way, Ryan inspires youth by her example. She came to the centre after seeing an advertisement in the paper that asked, “Do you like working with youth?” For her, it was a no-brainer.
”I really enjoy working with young people a lot,” she said. “And I really enjoy being here, it's a wonderful atmosphere to work in and I've learned so much about my community.”
Ryan recently worked with nine students on putting together a safety fair for more than 200 fourth-grade students. She was quite impressed with their accomplishments.
”I'm really, really proud of them,” she said. “As well as learning about disaster awareness, they learned about leadership and communication -- positive leadership styles that are inclusive and democratic. You get a lot of good results when you include everyone in the decisions.”
Here in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, the Volunteer Centre of the Redwoods is sort of the “hub” of volunteerism and helps match those who wish to serve their community with an agency or individual who needs some help. A programme of the Area 1 Agency on Aging, the VCOR also encompasses the Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme, which finds volunteer opportunities specifically for those in their “golden years.”
Since RSVP receives federal funds, the volunteer centre keeps a database of volunteer “enrollees” that enables it to track the statistics the government requires on all programmes it helps fund.
”It's for enrolment purposes; that's where we need all the information in order to get the benefits available through RSVP,” said Stacy Becker, a volunteer coordinator at VCOR for five years. “A big chunk of our funding for RSVP comes from the feds, through large grants from the Corporation for National and Community Service and its sister programmes.”
Becker said right now there are about 1,316 people enrolled in the local database.
”The numbers have definitely gone up over the years,” Becker said. “But that doesn't count the hundreds of people that we refer directly over the phone and don't enrol in our system.”
Ryan said that if a potential volunteer is unsure about what type of volunteering they want to do, they can come to the centre for a one-on-one consultation with a VCOR placement coordinator. They'll ask about their skills and interests and then refer them to opportunities ranging from food banks, animal rescue groups, county departments (like the library) and cleanup crews to children's court advocates, classroom aides and innumerable others. If they're 55 or older, the coordinator will usually enrol them in RSVP.
Some of the local ongoing RSVP activities include “Katie's Krafters,” a group that meets at the Arcata Senior Dining Centre twice a week to make lap robes for rest home residents through Meals on Wheels and others in need. Another group, the “Woodcrafters,” meets at the senior centre in Eureka and makes handcrafted wood toys to be distributed to children in need through local churches and family programs.
Becker said RSVP members Elizabeth and Harvey Bolinger also create an assortment of handmade items on their own for children in need, such as stuffed animals and dolls, which they donated to local charities.
Another monthly activity handled by a four- to five-person team of RSVP members is the KEET-TV programme mailing. The team meets at the senior centre in Eureka and spends about half a day sticking labels on 3,000 to 4,000 monthly KEET-TV programme guides.
”They are indispensable in terms of helping us with that,” said KEET Business Manager Leslie Douglas. “We couldn't manage without them, and they're so dependable.”
This example points out how small groups of volunteers who show up regularly can have a tremendous impact on a non-profit organization.
Some of the other programmes offered by VCOR are the School-Based Programme, which includes pen pals, in-class helpers and resource speakers, and Board Connections, which provides training for those interested in serving on a local non-profit's board of directors.
Often there are needs for short-term volunteers, so Ryan coordinates another programme called the “Drop of the Hat Brigade.”
”We get all kinds of one-time requests from agencies -- like they need people who like to volunteer with families, or do beach cleanup, or be event coordinators, you name it,” said Ryan. “These are for people who can volunteer at the drop of a hat and can range from a couple of hours doing a bulk mailing, or working at a music festival or events like Godwit Days, things like that.”
Ryan said people of all ages enjoy being part of the brigade because it's so flexible. Right now it numbers around 170.
“A lot of people are really, really busy but still want to be connected to the community,” she said, “so it's a good way to make that connection.”
Ryan refers people to the event's coordinator, who then lets the brigade volunteers know what they need done, whether it's setting up tables and chairs, greeting people at the door or handing out programmes at a fund-raiser.
”And there's always a need for people to help get rid of invasive beach grass,” she said, referring to events held several times a year by local environmental groups. “People really seem to like pulling out the grass -- I guess the physical labour helps them burn off steam,” she added with a chuckle.
Essentially, then, the centre provides a source of “one-stop shopping” for anyone who is interested in making a difference in their community.
Volunteering, of course, is a two-sided coin, so the centre also serves hundreds of non-profit organizations, government agencies, schools and others that are looking for help. Having a skilled coordinator play matchmaker assures the agency that the volunteers will be “pre-screened” and will have at least some, if not all, of the qualifications it needs in a volunteer.
Besides the obvious physical, psychological and social benefits of volunteering, there are also some benefits to which RSVP members are entitled. That's why it makes sense to go through the formal enrolment process if you're 55 or over, Becker said.
“There's some limited mileage reimbursement to and from the volunteer site while on the job, and that covers whatever method of transportation they use -- bus, dial-a-ride or their own car,” said Becker. “They have to turn in their time sheets once a month in order to get the mileage reimbursement and report the hours they worked.”
She said RSVP members are also eligible for supplemental health and auto insurance, which kicks in after the insurance carried by the agency they volunteer for and after the volunteer's own personal insurance.
VCOR honours its volunteers at an annual event, as do many other organizations in the area. For example, there are more than 50 community volunteers who work with the Humboldt Area Foundation staff, according to Alexandra Reid, director of donor services. These volunteers assist “with everything from bulk mailings to investment decision-making,” Reid said.
This year, she said, Humboldt Area Foundation wants to highlight the work of volunteer David Cherney, who “has become indispensable to HAF.” Cherney recently retired after teaching all grades at Pacific Union School for more than 25 years.
”He serves on the scholarship committee that awards scholarships to students based on merit,” Reid said. “He also serves on two Field of Interest grant committees, helping select the nonprofits grant recipients that care for animals and those that work for the environment. David also doesn't mind rolling up his sleeves and helping to sort the more than 165 scholarship applications that come in, or standing by the copier as it produces copies for all the committee members. We estimate that he contributes more than 160 hours each year. Recently, David has also volunteered to help with phone and reception coverage.”
The local RSVP was founded in 1973, only a year or two after the national RSVP began. It was originally at Humboldt State University and then moved under the auspices of the Area 1 Agency on Aging in 1984, Becker said. The Volunteer Centre of the Redwoods was formed in 1994 and RSVP was then moved under VCOR. The volunteer centre has about four or five employees and a rotating AmeriCorps person.