When the Going Gets Tough, Volunteers Get Going

The gift of giving of one's time spurs social awareness and a capacity to be inside someone else's skin

You Shall Receive an Awakening as Volunteer

In times of crisis, you should be able to count on your neighbors. We’re not talking about needing an extra egg or cup of sugar in a pinch. Think of Ice Storm 1996 (devastating Spokane, Washington, and surrounding areas for weeks with snapped trees, downed electrical lines, broken pipes, ice covered homes and roads) or this past Wind Storm Twenty-Fifteen (sheer hurricane force winds in November, 140 mph, and torn roofs, down power lines, clogged roads, electricity service off for 185,000 people for days).

The tradition of volunteering includes barn-raising, helping with the harvest and housing flood-ravaged displaced neighbors.

I recently talked with some of Spokane’s store owners, taxi drivers, restaurateurs and others while researching a story on volunteerism in the Inland Northwest. Hands down, people said the first day or two of downed trees and electricity outages people were forgiving, patient. Lines snaking around the pizza joints that still had electricity were populated with understanding Spokanites. A few days into the calamity, however, precipitated a kind of collective panic for some. Hoarding of candles and other supplies started taking place.

Those that had the disposable income bought up generators; the ones with little money hunkered down in living rooms with tents set up to keep warm bodies in reptile-like motionless suspended animation.

In this day and age, I have seen over the course of thirty years as an educator and forty as a journalist more and more young people finding it tough to understand the value of community change through volunteering. Clothes and food drives are one small step toward volunteering, but communities throughout the country need boots on the ground working on so many projects to assist the poor, the old, the young, and even with our cities’ infrastructure. So much goes undone because over time the culture has shifted to me-myself-and-I mesmerized by the hand-held screen.

Yet, the act of organized community giving goes back to Ben Franklin and his first volunteer fire department in 1736. During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) volunteers organized boycotts of British goods and raised funds for the war. In the 1830s the Great Awakening led students into community work through religious groups. In 1857 the first YMCA was established at the University of Michigan, and then in 1881, the Red Cross was organized by Clara Barton. Six years later, the first United Way was up and running in Denver planning and coordinating local charitable organizations.

Three Motivations for Giving to thy Neighbor

For Janice Marich, head of Spokane County United Way’s volunteer outreach and engagement, the heart of volunteerism is for many a passion tied to a cause, one around personal enrichment, or, in her case (established early in her professional career), motivated by business interests. Her first gig was reporter in Eureka, California, 48 years ago whereupon she was asked to serve as the newspaper’s Mothers of March of Dimes coordinator. Part of the plan was to go door to door with cans raising money for polio research, but the young Janice recruited the college football team, and it was a hit.

“Volunteering was not promoted in high school or college,” she told me. “Once I got into business, volunteering was expected in the confines of of various professions.” For her, the business motivation got Marich onto boards with her sleeves rolled up around governance. She emphasized a recent five-year stint on the board of trustees for the Spokane Public Library because “books were a big part of my life, as my mom was a small town librarian.”

The mantra for Spokane County’s United Way is “convene, connect, mobilize,” centered around taking “money from good people and giving it to people (organizations) who do good things for people in our community.” Those many groups are mostly non-profits, with threadbare or precarious budgets and who depend on volunteers big time to carry out all manner of functions.

Fifty Percent of All Food is Wasted . . . Except with 2nd Harvest

For the largest donated food purveyor in the Inland Northwest, Second Harvest more than just weathered “the storm” since their facility didn’t lose power. They provided food. Currently, they handle food pick ups and deliveries for 26 counties (21 in Eastern Washington and five in Idaho), to the tune of two million pounds a month, serving 55,000 people a week.

For Rod Weiber, who handles volunteers as the Chief Resource Officer for Second Harvest, volunteers are what make his non-profit work – count that as 6,000 volunteers. The bulk of the volunteers are used Monday through Saturday at sorting events, where individuals, groups, businesses, and families (even kids 9 years old) get in on the service of giving.

“Spokane is a good city for the spirit of giving back,” Weiber said. “The city loves to help its neighbors with time and money and donated food.” There’s a new volunteer center at Second Harvest, and the facility is filled to the rafters with packaged foods, breads, produce of all types. The non-profit will even send a truck across the country if the deal is too good to turn down – like a semi-load of jars of peanut butter. The $3100 shipping costs for that run was worth the trip, he said.

The volunteers help make up bulk food kits that go to some of the 250 agencies that are sprinkled around the region – food banks, soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels facilities, big and small (Spangel, WA, for instance has a 30 meal a month program to help the needy).

This is a far cry from 1971 when the non-profit started as the Spokane Food Bank serving just 7 to 10 agencies. This year’s operating budget will surpass $6.1 million, Weiber added. Second Harvest has 46 full-time and 12 part-time employees, as well as work study students from various colleges, including Gonzaga University.

This year’s Thanksgiving Tom’s Turkey Drive at Spokane Arena involved 2,000 volunteers over a three-day period, giving away 11,000 meal boxes that included a turkey.

History of Volunteering Involves a Great Society

In 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps was formed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The CCC helped renew the country’s degraded forests by employing millions of young men.

National Committee on Volunteers tied into the National Conference of Social Work tackling the huge demands of society in ’31: unemployment, poverty, and the social turmoil of the Great Depression. The group promoted volunteering and sponsored the creation of Volunteer Bureaus.

In 1951 the National Association of Volunteer Bureaus started as a network of volunteer bureaus, offering training in volunteer management, developing standards of excellence for volunteer programs, and promoting volunteering in communities.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps.

In 1986 with 380 Volunteer Centers in existence, 226 were members of the National Volunteer Center; 115 were internal divisions of the United Way; 90% of all other Centers received a portion of their funding from United Way: 70% were independent and 20% operated as divisions or programs of a local United Way.

Just three years after the Peace Corps is created, the War on Poverty became the focal point for starting national service programs like the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the Job Corps, the Neighborhood Youth Corps and College Work Study Program.

It may be a wish of folk like Janice and Rod that organizations such as Second Harvest will shrink because poverty will have been tackled and hunger eliminated, but few progressive economists see that happening under the current Capitalistic paradigm. The increase in demand for emergency food is dramatic – in 2006 Weiber’s group distributed 13 million pounds of food; this year’s emergency food total will top 25.7 million pounds.

Janice Marich points out the on-line portal United Way manages – Volunteer Spokane – is a clearing house for volunteer opportunities in the area, but she is looking for funding to sustain the service. In the end, she sees a healthy community as one where volunteerism in the non-profit sector grows.

The work her agency is focusing on ties into larger community visions and goals, around priorities set forth by many agencies and organizations – three primary areas are centered around systemic issues which precipitate the eventual outcome of homelessness and hunger.

Three Strikes Against Poverty, Drop-outs, Domestic Abuse

The biggest issue United Way and partners are attempting to work on is bridging the achievement gap for people living in poverty as they funnel through elementary and secondary education. High school graduation rates for the county are low. The goal is to hit higher marks for low income and minority students by 2020. A second building block this community priorities directive is attempting to mitigate or erase is the high rate of abuse and neglect in Spokane’s families.

“When I first moved to Spokane, there were two distinct things I heard to describe this city: ‘it’s a community of hard working poor and a great place to raise children,’” Janice said. “When I came to United Way, I found out this isn’t a great place to raise all children.”

The third major area on their radar is the continuing trend of more and more poverty entrenched in Spokane’s families and in large swaths of neighborhoods. It’s a deeper issue than just throwing a life raft at it, she emphasized, but rather one where developing good paying jobs for people coming from traditionally poor families is key through the first priority: having a high school diploma and possibly two-year college degree or technical certificate.

The only way these programs can be actualized is with giant social capital and local expertise from volunteers, both unpaid and compensated.

Boots on the Ground

Imagining Second Harvest and its 6,000 volunteers doing the leg work for food packing and distribution of all that nutritional salvation conjures up a well-oiled operation. Picturing throngs of folks spanning five generations is emblematic of maybe the adage that Spokane does roll up its sleeves to help the needy. Rod Weiber points to one couple who has been volunteering regularly for 25 years, and another individual who’s 94 years old and comes to the facility regularly to volunteer.

The best volunteers are regulars, have a great attitude, and seem to have an innate need to give back, and many times volunteers not only have themselves been touched by hunger but were once victims of bad times and availed themselves of Second Harvest’s services.

Luckily, there are 360 Volunteer Centers in the US touching 170 million people in thousands of communities. That’s 2.5 million volunteers connected to over 80,000 organizations. The Volunteer Center National Network has a powerful vision people from all walks of life, in every school setting, and in every corporation should adopt: “To strengthen the nation by igniting volunteering and social action through Volunteer Centers in local communities.”

The gift that keeps on giving, volunteerism: it builds community connections; harmonizes what democracy and helping your neighbor really mean; is both spiritually and intellectually transformative; and brings with it a certain steady, healthy state of physiological wellness. These pluses are experienced by the volunteer.

For the 50-year-old Weiber, he knows what corporate life working 80 hour weeks is all about. He said he had to move on from a lucrative career and find something rewarding, like the work he’s been doing at Second Harvest for going on 5 years. For 67-year-old Marich, she knows the high pressure work of being a PR-Communications specialist for the attorney general under Christine Gregoire and in DC as a lobbyist. She’s been a public information officer for the Santa Clara Health Department, and worked in California and Nevada for Pacific Bell. Before finding her home at United Way as Vice President of Community Relations, she worked for Empire Health Services.

It’s clear in my life, working for refugees from Central America, many of whom were victims of torture and who left murdered loved ones behind in Guatemala, the work I did in El Paso and Juarez was small in comparison to the values and benefits those folks I volunteered for brought me. My mom’s from Canada, a small town four hours north of Vancouver, BC, and I remember as a child how neighbors gave food to old shut ins, and how itinerant workers ended up in my grandparents’ basement with a warm bed, three squares a day and respect in return for some help in the garden or with construction. We called them Uncle Bill. I had a lot of “Uncle Bills” in my life in Paris, Germany, Scotland, Iowa, Arizona and Texas.

A helping hand, some pointed direction, anything to assist our fellow humans in need, that’s the core to volunteerism. Horace Mann said it straight:

“Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.”

*first appeared in Spokane Living Magazine

Afterword: There are many more progressive programs around volunteering and paying for volunteers, something USA and Spokane could hardly fathom in a capitalistic paradigm. Many parts of the world need work done, and there are 50 to 80 percent unemployment victims in youth and male categories, as well as with women.

We need brigades of folks working to bring communities up to standard, to health and safety, to educate and care for the old, disabled, young. So, you have a single payer health care system, first, so people do not have to sign onto the corporate felons just to get some rotten health care that is still subsidized by USA taxpayer while the health care system and docs and even nurses steal from our pockets for substandard health care. Next, advanced public transportation pushing personal vehicles outside the norm. Next, real public cultural places where we can recreate. Again, trillionaires and billionaires, they are offshoring jobs and stashing our hard earned money into drug havens, off shore banks (drug dealing and arms dealing and diamond dealing outfits, all of them).

See, people would then be able to skill up by getting into communities and working for money — not a lot, but, all the health, transportation and cultural needs are taken care of, and education, well, guess what? We’d have a new society, one based on knowing thy community, helping thy community, and learning new skills. Regressive taxation, too, would be scrapped.

Here, European Year of Volunteering for Everyone — paying people, so they can live with a roof over their heads,

Far from being a means of providing handouts to unemployed youth, the European Year of Volunteering for Everyone is an act of self-assertion by European civil society: an act that can be used to construct a new proactive constitution from the bottom up in order to re-establish Europe’s political creativity and legitimacy. Political freedom cannot survive in an atmosphere of fear. It only thrives and becomes established where people have a roof over their heads and know how they are going to live tomorrow and in their old age. That is why the European Year of Volunteering for Everyone needs a robust foundation of finance. We ask businesses in Europe to make their appropriate contribution.

Urlich Beck, author of Brave New World of Worktalks a lot about the value of work, of paying people to be engaged in their communities, their nation states, what have you. Man, wouldn’t that be a real Marxist world, where we do good things because our time is freed from the endless subjugation of get-it-while-you-can toil for this consumer-retail-85-people-at-the-top-controlling-half-the-world’s-wealth system.

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.