Volunteering Made Easy

Larry Nagengast

, Community

The state Office of Volunteerism plays matchmaker for worthy causes and Delawareans who want to donate their time

When it comes to charitable contributions, many people find that a gift of their time is more meaningful and can have a greater impact on their communities than a cash contribution. In the coming months, Out & About will profile some of these volunteers, along with the programs in which they serve. The series is being developed in cooperation with the state Office of Volunteerism, which is the subject of our first installment.

As State Volunteer Services Coordinator, Clare Garrison has learned that little things—like a cookie—can mean a lot.

That was brought home to her not long ago when she participated in the annual “Bake the Night Away” event at Delcastle Technical High School. Now in its 10th year, the Christmas holiday event brings together culinary arts students and adults from the community to bake dozens of cookies, package them and deliver them to police stations around the state. It’s a small gesture, a way of thanking the men and women whose duty is to keep us safe.

As one baking and packaging session wrapped up, a Delcastle student turned to Garrison and said, “You know, I never realized that a cookie could mean so much.”

That’s just one example of why Garrison takes pride in her work at the New Castle County office on Du Pont Highway. During her 20 years there, the Newark resident has handled a variety of duties in an operation whose focus is matchmaking—helping people who want to help find a program or an organization that’s looking for helpers.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be a volunteer,” says Tara Wiggins, program officer for AmeriCorps, the national service program that operates in Delaware through the Office of Volunteerism.

Ananya Singh, a volunteer with Global Youth H.E.L.P. Inc., winner of the 2017 Governor’s Youth Volunteer Service Awards in the Community Service Category. Photo courtesty of the State Office of Volunteerism

Young or merely young in spirit, skilled or simply eager, volunteers can find ways to help just about anywhere in the state—and with good reason.

Delaware’s nonprofit organizations have been squeezed from all directions. A state revenue shortfall last year resulted in a 20 percent cut in grant-in-aid funding to nonprofits, not to mention other reductions in contracted services these agencies provide to the state. The shrinkage of big businesses and the departure of headquarters operations have trimmed corporate philanthropy. And the recent changes in federal tax laws are expected to reduce the number of Delawareans who itemize deductions, leaving nonprofits fearful that individuals won’t give, or will give less, if they can’t write off the contribution on their taxes.

In this environment, it’s increasingly important for Delawareans to do what they can to help nonprofit organizations meet their critical needs.

Easy-to-use website

That’s where the state Office of Volunteerism comes in.

With a staff of 21 people, the agency performs yeoman’s work, work that has been made much easier in recent years through development of an easy-to-use interactive website, VolunteerDelaware.org and the Volunteer Delaware page on Facebook.

Years ago, Garrison says, people interested in volunteering would call the office, answer questions from the staff about their interests and then have to wait a week or so while a staffer checked a database for suitable opportunities. “By the time we got back to them, many of them had moved on” and found other things to do with their time, she says.

Now, finding a volunteer match is just a few clicks away.

Would you like to help a child learn to read? Deliver meals to the elderly? Clean up a park? Guide tours at a museum? Opportunities like these—and hundreds more—are easy to find at VolunteerDelaware.org.

Organizations seeking volunteer help need only log on to the site, create an account, and fill out a form. Once the office verifies that the organization is a legitimate nonprofit, it can start posting its volunteer needs on the site, says Deborah Tokarski, the state’s volunteer services administrator for marketing.

As of mid-January, there were 885 organizations using the site and more than 4,200 volunteer opportunities posted, Wiggins says. “And we’re looking for more agencies to use our service,” she adds.

Prospective volunteers can browse the website to search for opportunities. Plugging in a keyword, like “reading” or “museum,” can simplify the search. Entering the days you’re available and your ZIP Code can narrow opportunities to those that fit your schedule and are easily accessible.

Once you identify opportunities you like, you will have to create an account on the site so the agencies can be notified of your interest.

Prospective volunteers who aren’t tech savvy, or who don’t have access to a computer, may call the Office of Volunteerism to ask about opportunities.  In New Castle County, call Garrison at 255-9899.

Organizations seeking volunteers have varying requirements, Garrison says. Some of the details are described on links from the website, and others you’ll find out about when the organization contacts you.

For example, some organizations look for volunteers with specific skills, while others require participation in a few hours of training or orientation before you can start serving.

In recent years, Wiggins says, there have been changes in how organizations seek out volunteers. “We suggest that they seek out skilled volunteers and use them for purposes that match their skills,” she says. “If you can recruit an accountant, do you want to have them stuffing envelopes?”

It is often preferable, she says, “to ask what this person can do for you, rather than to have canned opportunities.”

Flexible scheduling

Volunteering doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and the office encourages organizations to tailor their opportunities to the availability of the people who are eager to help.

“We encourage agencies to be flexible,” Tokarski says. “Some people want to go to Florida in the winter, or to the beach in the summer, or they want something they can do at their convenience, for one day a week, or two days a week, or even from their homes.”

Venessa Lundy works on one of the Habitat for Humanity houses on 11th Street in Wilmington. Photo Don Blake

The Office of Volunteerism also provides a gateway to a pair of programs aimed primarily at the state’s 50-plus demographic.

One of them, aptly named Volunteer Delaware 50+, places volunteers in that age group with agencies that agree to keep track of the hours volunteers put in. Participants qualify for recognition events and other awards based on hours and years of service. About 200 agencies are linked to the 50+ program, which had nearly 1,500 active volunteers last year.

The other, Foster Grandparents, places individuals 55 and older with limited incomes in assignments supporting young children at daycare centers, Head Start programs, schools and youth and family service centers for 15 to 40 hours a week. Participants receive a non-taxable hourly stipend, monthly training, an annual physical exam and other benefits. Last year, Foster Grandparents attracted 184 volunteers statewide, who served more than 192,000 hours and assisted more than 1,100 children.

AmeriCorps members, who typically serve for a year or more, clean parks and trails or participate in financial literacy, housing and job training programs. Members receive health insurance, childcare assistance if necessary and eligible, and student loan deferment (for eligible loans). And upon successful completion of their term of service, members receive an education award that can be used to repay qualified student loans or put toward future education endeavors, along with personal and professional development opportunities including professional certifications. Last year, Delaware had 138 AmeriCorps members.

In addition, the office administers the Delaware Volunteer Credit program, which enables high school students to earn one credit toward graduation by devoting 90 hours to community service during the school year.

While volunteers get involved because of their desire to support their communities, their service warrants public recognition, Tokarski says, and it is provided through annual awards. Last year, the programs recognized 14 individuals, 13 groups and three others for lifetime achievement as well as 13 youths and five youth groups.

Volunteering, Tokarski and Garrison say, can benefit participants as well as the agencies they serve. It can be a step toward a new career or a rewarding activity in retirement, an opportunity to meet new people, make friends or broaden horizons.

And, like the high school student Garrison enjoys talking about, it’s a way to do something little that has a way of making a big impact.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.