Special Reports

February 28, 2013

Volunteerism often benefits volunteers as much as others

Volunteerism is on the rise in Kansas and across the nation.

Volunteerism is on the rise in Kansas and across the nation.

More than 36 percent of Kansans volunteer. Whether it is hammering a nail into a Habitat for Humanity house or serving food to the homeless, more people are lending a hand.

The federal agency that reports on volunteerism – the Corporation for National and Community Service – reported that one in every four adults nationwide gave their time to help at an organization last year. This was an increase from the year before.

Volunteers not only help the people or organizations they serve, they often help themselves. Whether retired, in the work force, unemployed or a student, volunteers can gain from their efforts to help.

“Volunteering gives the elderly a sense of meaning or mattering,” said Louis Medvene, a psychology professor at Wichita State University. “They are having a positive influence on the world that is linked to a sense of well-being.”

Medvene, who studies seniors, said that when the elderly volunteer, studies have shown they often have better mental health and live longer. Like seniors, other populations volunteer for either altruistic (helping others) or egoistic (helping yourself) reasons – or both.

“Most often it’s a combination of the two. It benefits others and the person,” Medvene said. “People volunteer for a variety of motives.”

Delane Butler, vice president of marketing at United Way of the Plains, also finds that people volunteer for many reasons. The local United Way serves as a clearinghouse for more than 300 nonprofit organizations seeking volunteers.

“For some people, it’s an opportunity to stretch out into an area they might not know about. It might even lead to a career or experience for a different job,” Butler said. “If they are laid off, it keeps their morale up.”

But, Butler explained, there is always the good feeling that people get from helping. Corporations also have found that when their employees volunteer together, they build relationships and have shared experiences.

The local chapter of the United Way keeps its volunteer list up to date. When volunteers go online or call the volunteer help line, they are asked what type of volunteer work they would like to do and how much time they want to commit. Nonprofit organizations in south-central Kansas also are asked to call this line and give opportunities for volunteers.

“There are lots of hidden volunteer opportunities out there,” Butler said.

The Sedgwick County Zoo had more than 900 volunteers last year. Volunteers can assist in almost any department of the zoo. However, volunteering in an animal area with a keeper is the most requested. These helpers become a part of the daily routine, whether it is making diets for the animals, cleaning their habitats or supporting an education class.

The Lord’s Diner, run by the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, needs 70 volunteers each day at two locations to keep meals for the homeless flowing. Sheryl Gulik, the organization’s volunteer coordinator, said the organization will be expanding its services by hiring an additional cook and introducing a mobile truck in north-central Wichita. When it does that, it will need even more than its 5,500 volunteers.

Episcopal Social Services, like many other faith-based groups in the city, not only has a food outreach but also helps at-risk teens. The group’s largest outreach, though, is its representative payee program, in which financial stewards from the community volunteer to help those who cannot understand how to pay their bills.

“These clients avoid homelessness,” said Jennifer Wise, director of development at Episcopal Social Services. “We are very volunteer driven, and we can’t do without them.”

Schools, hospitals and other social service organizations pinched by the economic downturn also welcome a helping hand. The Salvation Army, in order to fulfill its many outreach programs, needs more than bell ringers throughout the year.

Via Christi Health’s Wichita hospitals have more than 850 adult and teen volunteers who last year provided more than 84,000 hours of service.

“In addition to providing us with hundreds of extra pairs of hands, our volunteers are the living embodiment of our mission to serve as a healing presence,” said Cyndi Martin, director of volunteers for Via Christi. “They are always on the lookout for that opportunity to make a difference during a patient’s or family’s stay at our hospitals.”

Many museums and community theaters also run on volunteer steam. Organizations such as the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheum rely on volunteer ushers. The Wichita Art Museum and Botanica also count on volunteers. At the Old Cowtown Museum, volunteers usually dress in period costume when working with the public. The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation is always in need of volunteers for festivals.

“We couldn’t open our doors without our volunteers,” said Jennifer Wright, president of the Orpheum. “They are critical to us.”

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