King Day of Service volunteers get busy

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter



You can help

In this still-sluggish economy, volunteerism has never meant more to nonprofit agencies, schools and jurisdictions.

Three thousand volunteers devoted nearly 50,000 hours, valued at close to $1.1 million, to the city of Vancouver in 2012, according to a statement from the city. And last year's annual "Volunteering and Civil Life in America" report found that the state ranked ninth in the nation for volunteerism, with nearly 2 million residents — just over one-third of the population — serving 254 million total hours in 2012. Click here for an overview of the report, by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Call your favorite nonprofit to get involved, or visit the following websites:

• City of Vancouver:

• Clark County Environmental Services and related links:

• Local parks:

• Volunteer Connections via the Human Services Council:

• Clark County Sheriff's Office:

• Vancouver police:

• United Way, clearinghouse of regional volunteer opportunities, based in Portland:

Despite struggling to penetrate soupy fog and thick woods at Vancouver Lake on Monday morning, volunteers had no problem seeing exactly what they were doing: making Clark County a better place.

And making themselves a little better in the process, according to Mike Klein of Hazel Dell: “It’s a good way to burn off the extra meals I had yesterday, watching football,” he laughed.

Klein was taming the tangled landscape along the northwest side of the lake with a pair of jumbo pruners. He was one of approximately 50 volunteers who signed up to collect litter and carve out a new forest trail, in an outing sponsored jointly by the Vancouver and Clark County parks departments. Hundreds more volunteers fanned out all over the Clark County landscape, from the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge to the campus of Washington State University Vancouver, and from the offices of the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington in Bagley Downs to the Habitat for Humanity secondhand store just a few blocks away.

The third Monday in January has since 1986 been a federal holiday commemorating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; in 1994, the holiday also became the King Day of Service, with citizens encouraged to pitch in and improve their neighborhoods, and our nation, in whatever ways they choose.

“Volunteers in Clark County and Vancouver are making a major impact today in so many areas,” said Hailey Heath, the city of Vancouver’s volunteer coordinator. “They are vital to the success of so many different programs.”

Their volunteerism also aids their personal success, she added, in ways like invigorated physical health and expanded social connections.

“You spend time with people you didn’t know,” said Nam Gyal, a 17-year-old student at Heritage High School who was volunteering at the lake along with other members of his school’s Key Club.

“Everybody starts out with the attitude that you want to give back. But it turns into a social group,” said Lee Young of Kalama, a regular volunteer crew leader with the Washington Trails Association. Young said there’s a crew of volunteers that works with the WTA all over Southwest Washington every Thursday.

It’s mostly retirees, he said — but it does attract all types. “Last time there was a guy who works for a bank. And sometimes there are people who have to do community service, because they did a bad thing,” Young said. He enjoys their company too, he said, and the sense that offenders are gaining a fresh perspective by doing something positive. If you’re unemployed, Heath added, volunteering is a great way to renew your sense of purpose as well as build your résumé.

“We do this once a week,” said Ryan Ojerio, the southwest regional program manager for the Washington Trails Association. He gave his volunteer crew a quick primer on safely using — and not losing in the brush — the small saws he’d brought with him. He told everyone to watch out for “spring-loaded” branches that would snap into their faces when cut.

The all-volunteer trail project will take a long time to complete, said Karen Llewellyn, the county’s volunteer coordinator. It’s going to be a milelong stretch that sticks to the side of the lake north of the current gravel trail, which bends west toward the road. Volunteers on Monday worked to expand the first 400-foot stretch of the new trail from a line of little pink marker flags that vanished into the brush into a 10-foot-wide passage that will eventually be overlaid with gravel.

Trail-building is slow going but there are payoffs along the way, Young said, as you stand back at the end of the day and admire your progress. “You see what you did. It’s such a good feeling,” he said.

Klein, who loved coming to Vancouver Lake to hunt ducks as a boy, said the work was teaching him something new: “You don’t realize the logistics of what goes into building a trail until you do this,” he said.

Cleaning, shredding

Out of the woods and back in civilization, a couple of visiting volunteers were adding their efforts to the usual volunteer labor that underpins the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington. Approximately 350 medical professionals and others routinely volunteer at the clinic every month. They’re busy; AmeriCorps-Vista volunteer Allie Cislo said October saw 813 separate medical and dental visits here.

“That is a lot of traffic,” she said, and it can leave a lot of administrative tasks and just plain mess in its wake.

So Dionne Vester, a counselor at Hudson’s Bay High School, and Susan Scholtes, a retired elementary teacher from Camas, found themselves deep in shredded patient records — and cheerful conversation — in one tight little room at the back of the clinic’s network of small offices in central Vancouver. Other volunteers were assembling reference materials into notebooks, sorting donations for an upcoming homeless resource day and reorganizing cupboards and storage areas. They also cleaned the clinic’s mobile dental van.

Vester said volunteerism is a way of life to her, and she didn’t think twice about doing something productive on a day off from school. “A lot of kids and a lot of community members love to volunteer all year round,” she said. “Today is just another day.” But it was definitely nice to do something completely different — something with her hands — for a change, she said.

“Nice to just check out and shred — and talk,” she laughed.

In her regular work as a school counselor, Vester said, she’s referred the occasional student or family to the Free Clinic for medical help. “It is a great resource for families that need it,” she said.