“Perhaps the first and biggest benefit people get from volunteering is the satisfaction of incorporating service into their lives and making a difference in their community and country,” says the Corporation for National and Community Service.
A seldom recognized bonus: In the past twenty years, studies have shown that people who volunteer reap health benefits such as lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer.
For some folks, volunteering just comes naturally. They are generous with their time and money without even realizing the enormous positive difference they make in their communities. In 2014, for example, Virginians ranked 18th among all states for volunteering with more than 30 percent of residents donating more than 300 million hours of service and $7 billion (yes, billion!) in the value of services contributed.
Some people, of course, volunteer for groups involving their own children as a room parent, soccer coach, or scout leader. Others volunteer for their religious organization such as Linda (who prefers not to use her last name) who serves on Thursdays at Holy Comforter’s soup kitchen.
“My Dad used to take us to feed the poor,” she recalls. “Yesterday we served 237 people who came in for lunch. I love talking with the people and I know we make a difference. Can you imagine just being hungry here in Charlottesville?”
Linda’s husband volunteers at several organizations including Meals on Wheels. Others serve a remarkable range of services in our region from volunteer firefighters to dog walkers to hospice friendly visitors, food closet staffers and much more.
On a large scale, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville has partnered with 170 low-income families in the past 25 years to help them become homeowners.
Using the basic Habitat model, community volunteers join forces with people who are working to own their own homes. Hundreds of volunteers work on committees, serve at the Habitat Resale Store on Harris Street with its inventory of donated building supplies, and actually help build homes.
“Habitat is a place where a woman can lift a hammer and work,” says Charlottesville resident Deb Shapiro, “and there are challenges like the time I was up on a roof. It’s a great opportunity to serve the community and learn skills at the same time.”
The individuals seeking to own a Habitat home must attend a variety of classes related to home ownership and contribute many hours of work. “Getting housing is a blessing for the owners,” Shapiro says, “but it’s not a hand out. It’s definitely something they have earned.”
More recently Habitat has shifted its focus from single dwellings to entire neighborhoods such as Southwood. Almost ten years ago, Habitat purchased the 100-acre Southwood Mobile Home Park which today has nearly 350 trailers and more than 1,500 residents. The long-term plan is to redevelop the site as a mixed-income neighborhood and Habitat has already invested more than $2 million on maintenance, sewer upgrades and repairs.
Habitat clearly improves the low-income housing situation in our area, which makes a big difference to the new homeowners, but also to the community as a whole. For information, visit CvilleHabitat.org.
Many thrift shops in our region are almost entirely staffed by volunteers who pick up, accept and sort donations and serve at cash registers for worthy causes. Examples are Twice is Nice on Preston Avenue that supports JABA’s Mountainside residence in Crozet, the Schoolhouse Thrift Shop on Rio Road that supports several local agencies including Habitat, the SPCA Rummage Store in Seminole Square that helps fund the local shelter, and the Salvation Army Thrift Store on Cherry Avenue that furthers the organization’s mission.
One at a Time
Some agencies have volunteers who help just one person at a time. For example, Tori Tremaglio is a tutor with Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle. In the past year, 336 volunteers, from 18 to over 85, worked with 413 students. (A training session for new tutors is scheduled for Saturday, September 24th with another in mid-October.) For more information, visit LiteracyForAll.org
“I’m working now with a woman from Sudan,” Tremaglio says, “and we meet two hours a week at our offices at The Jefferson School. I love the one-on-one format and you can make an incredible difference in one person’s life.”
The relationship often goes beyond simply teaching someone to read. Tremaglio reports that her student is now navigating buses, working, and using the library because she got a library card. “I’ve worked with four people over the years. What I love is making that difference for one person and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.”
Where Can I Volunteer?
There are a number of avenues to find positions. For example, VolunteerMatch.org is searchable by location and area of interest and even includes virtual volunteer opportunities that can be accomplished remotely by computer.
Locally, the United Way website has a broad list of both one-time and ongoing opportunities at CvilleVolunteer.org.
On the first Sunday of each month, the Daily Progress has an extensive listing of local groups seeking volunteers. (These listings can also be found online at Daily Progress.com.)
“I’ve gotten reports of good responses,” says Liz Wood who maintains all the daily listings for the paper and gives time to her church. “In fact, the volunteering listing is one of the tasks I enjoy most about my job because I know it makes a difference.”
Marilyn Pribus lives in Albemarle County with her husband. Over the years she has volunteered in positions from Cub Scout den mother to a listener at a suicide hotline. She is currently a member of the Charlottesville Threshold Choir which sings for hospice patients and others in need of strength, comfort, and peace. For information visit CharlottesvilleThresholdChoir.org.