The opportunities are literally too numerous to list. Try your local elementary school. Try your favorite charity, from the Arc to the Y (M or W). Try your nearest hospital, food bank or homeless shelter.
Or try calling one of these clearinghouses for a huge range of volunteer options. Describe your interests and skills and they’ll plug you in:
City of Vancouver: Hailey Heath, 360-487-8316 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Clark County Public Works: Karen Llewellyn, 397-6118, ext. 1627, or email@example.com
Local parks in general: Start with Parks and Recreation volunteer program
Volunteer Connections, a program of the Human Services Council: 360-735-3683
When she’s with Phyllis White, who is frail and dying of cancer, Debbie Switzer’s hands are as gentle as a couple of cotton balls. When Switzer is with Bob Garrett, also diagnosed with cancer but a tougher customer overall, she digs in harder — while complimenting Garrett’s tattoos, reminders of a life well-lived. Garrett, an ex-Navy man and freelance photographer, talks about some but just grins wickedly about others.
“The most important thing is the connection, not the technique,” said Switzer, a licensed massage therapist who makes the rounds at PeaceHealth’s Ray Hickey Hospice House every week. “It’s about extending yourself.”
Switzer, who said she tends to tear up over Hallmark commercials, doesn’t bat an eye at the emotional intensity of her volunteer assignment. In fact, it was after she started volunteering at the Hospice unit of PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center that she decided to earn her state massage therapy license — so she could offer up that most intimate, skin-to-skin connection with people who are dying.
“Very relaxed,” was Bob Garrett’s smiling status update when Switzer’s massage was done. “Very well. It was very needed.”
“This is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” Switzer said. “It changed everything. I feel great at the end of every day.”
Places in the heart
Facilitating these intimate connections and good spirits is the work of Carol Thompson and Cindy Cook of the Hospice unit of PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. It’s their job to keep unpaid, but highly valued, labor flowing.
Thompson and Cook are professional volunteer coordinators. That’s an increasingly important and prominent position for nonprofit agencies in an age of budget cuts and social needs. From huge, multifaceted organizations such as PeaceHealth and even Clark County and the city of Vancouver, to smaller outfits with singular purpose — such as Habitat for Humanity, which builds low-income housing, and the Clark County Food Bank, which collects and redistributes food — volunteer coordinators take on the subtle task of recruiting, training, monitoring and rewarding the crucial people who are motivated by nothing more than satisfaction.
“A lot of them don’t even see themselves as volunteers,” said Barb Nordstrom, a volunteer coordinator with Washington State University extension. “They’re just doing what they like to do.”
Hospice volunteers are a great example. Excitement and enthusiasm aren’t most people’s first associations with hospice — but the volunteers who choose this work could not be zestier about it.
“It’s not a normal volunteer gig,” Thompson noted. “Volunteers are called to do hospice work.” Called by the heart, she means, not on the phone. Three-quarters of hospice volunteers “have had a good hospice experience. They do it to give back.”
Hickey House receptionists Joyce and Jim Dunn, both 84 years old, volunteer together. “We’re the ones getting the blessing,” Joyce said, tenderly joining hands with her husband. “You see how each family goes through this chapter in its own way.”
“I love the feeling of helping others,” said Hickey volunteer Beth Kellett, who earns a paycheck as a registered nurse but then continues helping off the clock. “It fills a place in your heart.”
It also fills a place in taxpayers’ wallets. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 64.5 million people volunteered in some way, at least once, between September 2011 and September 2012. They contributed over 8 billion hours of labor, valued at more than $170 billion.
Here in Clark County, an early April roundtable of the Director of Volunteer Programs Association drew 15 volunteer-management professionals — all of them women, incidentally — for a discussion of just how important volunteers are to their missions, and how to keep them happy.
“Last year, we got well over $1 million in in-kind support,” said Hailey Heath, the volunteer coordinator for the city of Vancouver. “That is tremendous.”
Sherry Braga of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District said 1,700 volunteers contributed 30,000 hours of support in 2012. Samantha Tracy said there are 600 volunteers — many of them doctors and medical specialists — at the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington. Kelly Cheney of the Vancouver Police Department said 130 volunteers signed up to do Neighbors On Watch citizen patrols, and an upcoming training will be “the biggest class ever. Interest is definitely not waning.”
This is National Volunteer Week — also referred to as Volunteer Appreciation Week.
“Although National Volunteer Appreciation Week is a time for us to honor our volunteers, volunteer groups often contact us to take on projects during this specific week each year,” said Susan Oberst, director of volunteers for Share, which provides services for the hungry and homeless. “We are lucky to have so many dedicated volunteers, who donate not only their time, but their money and resources to completing projects throughout our shelter and housing system. We are truly thankful for them and could not accomplish all that we do each year without their support.”
In fact, when winter weather is raging and Share and its network of shelters runs out of space for the homeless, it’s a largely volunteer-run organization that picks up the slack: The Winter Hospitality Overflow puts people up on a couple of local church floors. Nearly 2,000 local volunteers sign up for this effort annually, many putting in overnight shifts.
Parks and patrols
Volunteering can mean pulling on your work gloves and hauling a shovel over to a dewy site on a Saturday morning for a few hours of tree planting or ivy pulling. Or, pulling on your sports shorts and coaching whistle for a few hours of helping kids learn the rules of the game.
“Parks and Recreation is always about having fun, and that’s true of the volunteer opportunities, too,” said Heath, Vancouver’s volunteer coordinator. All told, she said, volunteers who came to Vancouver’s great outdoors either through Parks and Recreation or Public Works donated nearly 40,000 hours of labor in 2012.
Pulling ivy takes little in the way of training or skill. That makes it the perfect gig for single-day or onetime volunteers who want to do something vigorous but easy. And there’s nothing wrong with that, Heath said: “The ivy keeps growing, so we hope the people don’t stop signing up.”
But the city has plenty more to offer volunteers who want to do more than get their hands literally dirty. For one thing, Heath said, the great outdoors can use a lot more attention than just single-day visits from friends; if you want to work outside every weekend, there are probably enough city opportunities to keep you busy doing that. There are also opportunities at community center and senior center reception desks. And if you’re less interested in fun and games than in keeping the peace, that Neighbors On Watch citizen-auxiliary patrol program is eager for you to be the advance (unarmed) eyes and ears of the Vancouver police.
Which brings up an important point: Volunteers do not replace the labor of professionals, Heath said.
“They help address areas staff cannot get to,” she said. “They supplement what staff does and they can make staff’s job easier. But they don’t replace staff members.”
Perhaps not — but certain volunteer gigs have been built by law into the way states or the whole country does business. For example, a national program called Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) assigns highly trained volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected children who are moving through the courts. The YWCA Clark County is the local agency that administers the program.
CASA volunteers are required to take 35 hours of intensive training, getting them ready for a high-intensity world of law and emotion. They’ll investigate family situations and report in court; they’ll talk to social workers and lawyers as well as children and their family members.
“They take in a lot of information and think critically about all of it,” said Heidi Hyatt, the Y’s CASA volunteer coordinator. “They need to be able to understand a lot of different perspectives.”
The people who volunteer as CASAs are everyone from stay-at-home moms to nurses, journalists and attorneys. Hyatt called it “paraprofessional” volunteering because it does require a high level of judgment, people savvy and communication skills. It also requires a combination of empathy and toughness. Screening for such a sensitive and crucial volunteer job isn’t easy, Hyatt said.
Interestingly, both Hyatt and the Y’s overall volunteer manager, Stephanie Barr, screened themselves out of demanding emotional work.
“I knew my heart was there, but I didn’t think I could do that long term,” Barr said about working with domestic violence survivors.
“I learned I was really uncomfortable going into people’s homes,” Hyatt said. Ditto appearing before the judge: “I found it hugely intimidating. My hands were sweating. I realized I wasn’t going to be a good CASA.”
Mortal terror is one thing, she added, but if you’re “just nervous” about appearing before the judge, then training will help you.
Honesty about yourself, with yourself, is crucial, they said. Thompson, of PeaceHealth, said she’s wary of aspiring hospice volunteers whose feelings are too tender — or whose real motivation is to proselytize.
“We do not want a volunteer who walks in the door with an agenda,” she said. “We are very clear about that in the training.”
Every little detail
Working as a volunteer coordinator means running your own miniature corporate personnel department, many interviewed for this story said. It means taking cold calls from potential volunteers, interviewing them carefully to find out their skills and interests as well as any problems — such as criminal records that may or may not be disqualifying — getting them trained, monitoring their activities and then, at last, making sure they’re thanked appropriately.
“Volunteer management is about building relationships,” Heath said. “I am looking to make good matches.”
If it’s anything other than a single-day outing, she said, that may mean enduring a little bit of bureaucracy in the form of paperwork — and waiting.
“Let’s get to know each other,” Heath said. “Let’s look at the options and let’s make sure the system is fair for everybody.”
“It is a position that’s professionalizing pretty fast,” said Barr. “Organizations are realizing that they have many more volunteers than paid staff, and maintaining that is important work.”