Where have all the volunteers gone?
Blissfully, for some people, COVID-19 was no more than a long, albeit frightening, inconvenience. For those whose health, finances, and lives were permanently changed, the recovery is a work in progress. The pandemic impacted all of us differently, which also applies to many nonprofits. While a lucky few experienced increased giving, the majority, including United Way of Southeast Missouri, took a financial hit as many individuals worried about their own financial situation. And nearly all nonprofits that depend on volunteers suffered greatly.
Before the pandemic, nearly one-third of Americans volunteered at least once a year according to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service. This translates to more than $150 billion in benefits. A 2020 study by Fidelity Charitable found that two-thirds of volunteers decreased their activity or stopped volunteering entirely after the pandemic began. As nonprofit funding declined, so did the millions of dollars in valuable volunteers’ time. The experience of the majority of the 30 partners supported by United Way of Southeast Missouri reflects these national findings.
Big Brothers Big Sisters, which mentors through personal relationships, moved their volunteer activities to the virtual world. But many organizations depend on retired and senior volunteers, the group most susceptible to COVID-19 and least familiar with technology. Volunteers are slowly returning to pre-Covid activities, but many, especially those over 60, are not returning.
Read to Succeed is one of only two programs housed within United Way of Southeast Missouri. Since its inception in 2011, the program has succeeded with the commitment of valuable volunteers, many who are retired teachers. During a normal school year more than 200 elementary students are able to catch up and even surpass grade-appropriate reading levels with the one-to-one tutoring donated by generous Read to Succeed volunteers. After being completely out of the schools through 2020, the program is struggling to get volunteers back into the schools for a program that is critical in helping students return to pre-pandemic reading levels.
While Read to Succeed asks a commitment of only thirty minutes a week, programs that require a long-term commitment struggle year-round. United Way funded partner, Voices for Children/CASA, provides Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs). These volunteers serve as the voices of children who may spend months or even years in the court system as their parent(s) navigate mandated counseling, treatment or, sadly, imprisonment.
Mark Hotop, Volunteer Coordinator for Voices for Children, organized a Volunteer Fair on Sunday, January 15, from 1-4 P.M. The fair will be in the newly remodeled gym at The Salvation Army in Cape Girardeau; it is open to all area nonprofits and free to everyone. More than two dozen nonprofits have registered to share opportunities and speak to interested volunteers. United Way will offer information on what it means to volunteer as a board member, a critical need many of our partners seek to fill.
The proven benefits of volunteering are many. Data indicate volunteers live longer, healthier lives through lowered blood pressure and increased cardiovascular health, decreased dementia, and an increased sense of purpose and social connection. And volunteering makes our community better. It is an opportunity to help someone who may not have the same opportunities you’ve had. It truly is a chance to create lasting change. As the mother of one of our Read to Succeed students said through tears, “This program has changed my child’s life! She hated school, and she felt ‘stupid.’ Now that she can read, she is excited about learning and coming to school. She can’t wait to read and learn!”
We intentionally chose this date at the time we celebrate an American who gave his life to making the world better for others. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Life’s most urgent and persistent question is: what are you doing for others?… Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” Please join us on January 15th at The Salvation Army. If you can’t attend the event, volunteer opportunities are posted on our website. Our community needs your help.
Elizabeth Shelton, Executive Director
United Way of Southeast Missouri