Need knows no calendar

It’s great to volunteer during the holidays, but what about rest of year?

Friday, November 26, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 48
By Catherine Mayhew

The French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831 to study the American penal system. But he also noticed something that while not unique to this nation certainly runs through the fabric of it more than in most other countries.

In the Democracy of America, he noted:

“In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.”

Was he referring to political leaders or titans of industry? No. He was talking about volunteers.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a volunteer as “a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service.”

Volunteers are plentiful this time of year. Seasonal volunteers are somewhat akin to what regular churchgoers refer to as “H2O’s” – Holidays Two Only worshippers who only attend services on Christmas and Easter.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are natural entry points for people – and especially families – to set aside a few hours to help various nonprofits during a busy time. Volunteer spots are limited because nonprofits want to make sure that the experience is meaningful to those donating their time.

One of the most popular local volunteer activities is serving at the Nashville Rescue Mission.

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“Nonprofits, in general, work very hard to make sure that the individuals who serve with them have a good volunteer experience,” says Robin Johnson, director of volunteer engagement for Fifty Forward. “We don’t have an open call for volunteers. We know they’re coming. We know what they’re going to do.”

So there’s two ways to look at volunteerism – the short view (hello, holiday season) and the longer view.

Volunteering is older than the United States itself. It began before the country was formed when colonists helped each other build houses and plant crops. Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer firehouse in 1736. During the Revolutionary War, colonists banded together to raise funds for the war effort. The “minute men” were all volunteers.

The social reform movement blossomed in the 1800s and led to the creation of the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, the YMCA and the United Way – organizations founded to some extent to connect social services with volunteers.

The Ladies’ Aid Societies were formed during the Civil War to create shirts, towels, bedclothes, tents, uniforms and bandages for the troops.

In the early 1900s, volunteer service organizations such as the Lions Club, Rotary and Kiwanis were founded. And the advent of the Great Depression brought to life Volunteers of America. Of course, volunteerism flourished during World War II encompassing everything from entertaining the troops to collecting supplies.

Each year, generous donors provide Christmas gifts for older adults served by FiftyForward, which carefully works to ensure these lists contain both “needs and wants” and then deliver the gifts to the seniors.

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One of the first nationwide efforts to coordinate volunteers was in response to the Great Depression, including work by Volunteers of America. The postwar era brought the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty, which created an abundance of volunteer opportunities.

Today, more than 1 billion people around the world volunteer, the United Nations reports. And Americans lead the way. The Stanford Social Innovation Review reports Americans are 15% more likely to volunteer than people in the Netherlands, 21% more likely than the Swiss and 32% more likely than Germans.

It might seem obvious why people donate their time – they want to do something for others. But there are other reasons. Turns out volunteering is good for your health.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review reports that studies have found that the act of giving of oneself has mental health benefits, including mitigating depression and loneliness, feeling more socially connected and gaining a greater sense of the purpose of life.

And there are physical benefits, as well. Carnegie Mellon research found that older volunteers who regularly donated their time lessened the risk of high blood pressure by 40%.

The pandemic fueled the desire to volunteer, finds a study by Points of Light, an organization that encourages and mobilizes people to volunteer. Before the pandemic, 36% of respondents said they had volunteered. The number rose to 73% as the lockdown restrictions eased.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to feelings of isolation and helplessness,” the study states. “It has left people desperate to find new ways to connect with others and uplift their mood. We have long known the positive impact volunteerism and civic engagement have on an individual’s mental health and well-being and our research confirms health benefits are leading motivators for being civically engaged.”

In Nashville, one of the most popular volunteer opportunities during the holidays is the Thanksgiving dinners at the Nashville Rescue Mission. The mission serves homeless men, women and children.

“We love our volunteers and we realize the holidays are a wonderful time to serve,” says Michelle Brinson, the communications and public relations manager. “So we try to amp up opportunities around the holidays.”

Volunteers deliver trays to tables at the Nashville Rescue Mission “We love our volunteers,’’ says Mission’s Michelle Brinson.

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For the two Thanksgiving dinners the mission serves, volunteers work in the kitchens and on the serving line as well as carrying trays to tables.

“Thanksgiving is truly the holiday that gets the most attention because people think about thankfulness,” she explains. “So we do the great Thanksgiving banquets. We do it the Wednesday before and on Thanksgiving. Our need for volunteers for that is so high we have a special sign up. We don’t turn on those opportunities (on a web-based sign-up) until Nov. 1. And then it’s first-come, first-served.”

Fifty Forward, which serves older adults, also goes big for the holidays with Thanksgiving and Christmas meal deliveries and a holiday gift program.

“We’re just like every other nonprofit,” says volunteer director Johnson. “We receive a lot of interest in volunteer opportunities during the holidays. People are just feeling generous.”

Volunteers deliver 250 holiday meals to Fifty Forward clients. “It’s a really special day for us,” she adds. It’s a family tradition for a lot of Nashvillians. We start getting requests for volunteer spots starting in September.” Delivery spots have already been snapped up.

Another component of Thanksgiving volunteering involves school children. Students at Oak Hill School put together 500 Thanksgiving bags with handmade cards, snacks and fresh fruit for seniors. And that’s a volunteer opportunity families can expand upon if they want to help.

“One of the easy, great things you can do is to give holiday cards,” says Johnson. “We give cards along with the meals and volunteers have the opportunity to make those cards. That’s something a family can do together. It’s those little extra touches that go beyond the meal. That’s a great way to start being involved. I know people are often looking for projects to do with their families.”

Nashville Rescue Mission serves three meals a day, providing plentiful volunteer opportunities.

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Anyone who wants to take advantage of this option, should email rjohnson@fiftyforward.org.

While nonprofits will do their best to accommodate volunteers during high-interest holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, what they really hope is that those same folks will come back in January and make a longer commitment to service.

Fifty Forward engages about 2,500 volunteers throughout the year who tutor children, deliver meals to seniors, help cook and serve on a variety of board-related committees. “The vast majority really serve with us all year long,” says Johnson, although peak interest is during the holidays. “It’s always good for people when they think about volunteering at the holidays to make sure they keep in mind the people they are serving. That’s the ultimate goal. Whether it’s an older adult or a child or a family.”

Volunteers also flock to Second Harvest Food Bank in November and December, but there is greater need at other times of the year. The food bank needs extra hands every day to sort and pack food donations and prepare special backpacks for children who don’t get enough to eat at school and especially in the summer when they’re not in school at all.

“I don’t think people fully understand that our volunteer shifts September-December stay really full because people want to do their good turn for the holidays,” says Courtney Blaise, the community engagement director at Second Harvest. “But the truth is we need a lot of help in January and February and during spring break and in the summertime. The holidays are a great time to introduce volunteerism to your workplace or church, but I’d encourage (volunteers) to get on the regular schedule.”

Blaise says the need for volunteers has been highlighted by the increase in people who are food insecure because of the pandemic. One in eight people and one in seven children are experiencing hunger because of COVID-19.

“Hunger in Middle Tennessee is changing,” she says. “We’ve heard a lot of stories of people who are visiting the food bank for the first time. We’re seeing a lot of people who are suddenly out of work and are supporting their families. COVID has hit our service area hard.”

The Nashville Rescue Mission has one of the most visible holiday volunteer opportunities – serving meals at Thanksgiving. But the mission serves three meals a day every day of the year and there are many hands needed to get that accomplished.

“Since we serve three meals a day and we’re open 24/7, 365 days a year there are plenty of opportunities,” says Michelle Brinson, the communications and public relations manager. “Our biggest need is for the breakfast shift and that’s year-round. A person or group could volunteer from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. they would help with prepping and serving meals. We have 600-700 people who come through the line.”