Local nonprofits find volunteers scarce after holiday rush

They seek more people who can help year-round

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter



Hunting for volunteers

The YWCA Clark County, 3609 Main St., will hold a Volunteer Open House from 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29.

You can meet staff and current volunteers from every YWCA program. Opportunities run the gamut, from supporting survivors of sexual assault and advocating in court for children who have been abused and neglected, to helping in a preschool classroom. More male and more bilingual volunteers are especially welcome. No reservations are needed to attend the orientation.

Volunteer Connections, 201 N.E. 73rd St. (just off Hazel Dell Avenue), matches volunteers of all ages and interests with more than 200 local private and public nonprofit agencies. The agency conducts careful intake interviews to match volunteers’ interests and level of commitment with opportunities. Call 360-735-3683 or visit Volunteer Connections.

The Columbian runs a Volunteer Connections listing in the Life/Neighbors section every Wednesday.

Since Christmas Day, the volunteer hotline at Share has been “dead.”

“I always tell everybody: ‘People are hungry all year long, not just at Christmas and Thanksgiving,’ ” said Susan Oberst, Share’s volunteer coordinator and community relations manager.

“Maybe some people get volunteering out of their system over the holidays, and they don’t really follow up afterwards,” said Stephanie Barr, the volunteer coordinator at the YWCA Clark County.

It’s as regular as the tides, officials at several local nonprofit agencies said: Growing waves of volunteers start rolling in every autumn. Some call as early as September or October to book a single stint — a few hours on one day — sometime during the holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

“Some people sign up early to volunteer in November or December. They don’t do anything until then, and they come in for one day,” Oberst said. The volunteer calendar gets filled up with well-meaning folks who want to give it a try — and who vanish again for the rest of the year, or forever.

“In November and December, especially Christmastime, we get slammed with new applications,” Oberst said. “People will call all the way up to the 21st, 22nd, 23rd. We’ve done all our volunteer scheduling by then. We literally have to turn volunteers away.”

That’s when Oberst reminds folks that she could really use the help at times other than the holiday season. Typical reactions, she said, are puzzled, embarrassed, “taken aback” — and mostly not interested.

“Their hearts are in the right place, and we love and value all our volunteers,” she said. “But I wonder what they think we do the whole rest of the year.”

The volunteer tide has rolled out. “My January calendar is wide open,” she said. In December 2012, she said, Share put 845 “unduplicated” volunteers to work. The previous January, the number was just 108.

The only reliable New Year bump, several charity officials said, comes when high school seniors start hunting down senior projects — and typically need to get them scheduled, well, yesterday — and once again there’s a sudden glut.

On the morning of Jan. 8, Oberst and one assistant found themselves hauling boxes of donations from room to room at the Share volunteer center on Main Street. The volunteer they’d been counting on had a sick kid, and called with regrets.

The boxes are destined for the new Share Fromhold Service Center on Andresen Road — but Share doesn’t have a dedicated truck or driver to get them there. Share’s single vehicle is always overbooked with food runs, Oberst said.

Training time

Share, arguably Vancouver’s best-known homegrown charity, is great at marshalling volunteers. Its volunteer database contains an impressive 8,000 names, Oberst said. But that number is misleading: it’s anyone who’s ever volunteered for Share, even once. The real number of reliable volunteers who sign up, show up, get trained and then return more than once is less than 2,000, she said.

“We need volunteers who are consistent and committed to an office setting. Answering phones, filing, mailing letters,” she said. That may not be as spiritually satisfying as ladling up hot soup and a smile to a cold person in need, but it’s just as crucial to keeping the services coming, she said. Share is eager to sign up volunteers interested in getting trained and making a regular commitment of six months to a year, she said.

The same goes for the YWCA Clark County, which runs numerous programs that fight — and support victims of — domestic violence, racism and discrimination.

“We do get an onslaught every year that want to help specifically with the holidays,” said Stephanie Barr, the Y’s volunteer coordinator. The Y puts many of those folks to work at its annual holiday shop, she said, where they can mingle with needy Y clients browsing for some donated seasonal good cheer in the form of warm clothes and gifts for the kids. The Y also can put volunteers to work at the food pantry at its domestic violence shelter, Barr said.

Like Share, though, the Y is keenly interested in volunteers who get trained and make a commitment, because the ongoing work is intensive and sensitive. Y volunteers support survivors of sexual violence, advocate for abused and neglected children in the justice system, facilitate support groups, staff crisis hotlines and information and referral services and visit women in jail.

“A lot of our work involves building relationships,” Barr said. “That’s why we want volunteers who commit long enough to do that.”

Barr said the Y works with about 600 volunteers per year; 300 of them are active and ongoing. An orientation session for new volunteers is scheduled for Jan. 29 (see box, above). A well-attended orientation will draw upwards of 60 people, she said; usually something like half of them actually follow through.

“We’re a little unique. We have all different levels of volunteers, but our greatest need is for people who can commit to training and then six months to a year. It’s a great professional development opportunity,” she said.

‘Dedicated fleet’

Seasonal waves affect some nonprofit agencies more than others. The ones that provide the most basic services — food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless — ride those waves the most.

“We don’t really have that issue,” said Kim Hash, development director at The Children’s Center, an affordable mental health clinic. The Children’s Center does have a growing list of willing volunteers, Hash said — many of whom are family members of clients who have used the clinic and who want to give back. Some of those volunteers “would love to be involved in the therapy we do,” she said, but because of medical privacy laws, that cannot happen.

Instead, Children’s Center volunteers get put to use at the agency’s regular fund-raising events, she said. “It works out perfectly. Whenever I have a need, I have people to call. I have a dedicated fleet that keeps coming back to play,” she said.

Hash added that she, too, fields autumn calls from general volunteers looking to serve food on Thanksgiving. She refers them to sister charities such as Share, she said.

Open House Ministries rides some of those same tides of volunteers, said volunteer coordinator Dawn Barton. But it may be slightly more insulated from major ups and downs because of its niche as a Christian (nondenominational) provider of shelter and services. While most Clark County residents have heard of Share and know its reputation as the area’s biggest provider of food and shelter to the homeless, Open House’s fan base may be narrower — and more dedicated.

Maybe, Barton allowed. But she too gets flooded with volunteers in the run-up to Christmas, and seems to scare some off by suggesting they try a different time.

“People just want to come serve a meal on Christmas Day,” she said. “We don’t serve meals here.” There’s very little going on at OHM on Christmas Day, she said.

But Barton still hates to let a single volunteer go. “If you’ve taken the time to call us, I’m going to try to find you something to do.” She signed up whole families to wrap gifts and decorate the OHM tree before Christmas, she said.

Volunteers are needed every single day, she said. They sort and distribute donations, help residents build life skills, and re­arrange the basement auditorium several times per day for activities as varied as religious services, General Education Requirement classes and Zumba fitness sessions.

“Our volunteers are greatly appreciated and needed,” said donation supervisor Ruben Cortez. “They keep everything moving.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.