The tradition of volunteering includes barn-raising, helping with the harvest and housing flood-ravaged displaced neighbors. In times of crisis, you should be able to count on your neighbors. We’re not talking about needing an extra egg or cup of sugar in a pinch. Think of Ice Storm 1996 or this past Wind Storm 2015.
In this day and age, I have seen, over the course of 30 years as an educator and 40 as a journalist, more and more young people finding it tough to understand the value of community change through volunteering. Clothing and food drives are one small step toward volunteering, but communities throughout the country need boots on the ground working on so many projects to assist the poor, the old, the young and even with our cities’ infrastructure. So much goes undone because over time the culture has shifted to me-myself-and-I mesmerized by the hand-held screen.
Yet, the act of organized community giving goes back to Ben Franklin and his first volunteer fire department in 1736; during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) volunteers organized boycotts of British goods and raised funds for the war. In the 1830s the Great Awakening led students into community work through religious groups. In 1857 the first YMCA was established at the University of Michigan, and then in 1881, Clara Barton organized the Red Cross. Six years later, the first United Way was up and running in Denver, planning and coordinating local charitable organizations.
Three Motivations for Giving to thy Neighbor
For Janice Marich, head of Spokane County United Way’s volunteer outreach and engagement, the heart of volunteerism is for many a passion tied to a cause, one around personal enrichment, or, in her case (established early in her professional career), motivated by business interests. Her first gig was as a reporter in Eureka, California, 48 years ago, whereupon she was asked to serve as the newspaper’s Mothers of March of Dimes coordinator. Part of the plan was to go door to door with cans raising money for polio research, but the young Marich recruited the college football team, and it was a hit.
“Volunteering was not promoted in high school or college,” she says. “Once I got into business, volunteering was expected in the confines of various professions.” For her, the business motivation got Marich onto boards with her sleeves rolled up around governance. She emphasized a recent five-year stint on the board of trustees for the Spokane Public Library because “books were a big part of my life, as my mom was a small town librarian.”
The mantra for Spokane County’s United Way is “convene, connect, mobilize,” centered around taking “money from good people and giving it to people (organizations) who do good things for people in our community.” Those many groups are mostly non-profits, with threadbare or precarious budgets and who depend on volunteers big time to carry out all manner of functions.
Fifty Percent of All Food is Wasted . . . Except with 2nd Harvest
For the largest donated food purveyor in the Inland Northwest, Second Harvest more than just weathered Wind Storm 2015, and their facility didn’t lose power. They provided food. Currently, they handle food pick-ups and deliveries for 26 counties (21 in Eastern Washington and five in Idaho), to the tune of two million pounds a month, serving 55,000 people a week.
For Rod Weiber, who handles volunteers as the chief resource officer for Second Harvest, 6,000 volunteers are what make his non-profit work. The bulk of the volunteers are used Monday through Saturday at sorting events, where individuals, groups, businesses, and families (even kids as young as 9 years old) get in on the service of giving.
“Spokane is a good city for the spirit of giving back,” says Weiber. “The city loves to help its neighbors with time and money and donated food.” The volunteers help make up bulk food kits that go to some of the 250 agencies that are sprinkled around the region – food banks, soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels facilities, big and small (Spangle for instance has a 30 meal a month program to help the needy). This year’s Tom’s Turkey Drive at Spokane Arena involved 2,000 volunteers over a three-day period, giving away 11,000 meal boxes that included a turkey.
It may be a wish of folk like Marich and Weiber that organizations such as Second Harvest will shrink because poverty will have been tackled and hunger eliminated, but few progressive economists see that happening. The increase in demand for emergency food is dramatic – in 2006 Weiber’s group distributed 13 million pounds of food; this year’s emergency food total will top 25.7 million pounds.
Marich says that the on-line portal United Way manages – Volunteer Spokane – is a clearing house for volunteer opportunities in the area, but she is looking for funding to sustain the service. In the end, she sees a healthy community as one where volunteerism in the non-profit sector grows.
The work her agency is focusing on ties into larger community visions and goals, around priorities set forth by many agencies and organizations – three primary areas are centered on systemic issues that precipitate the eventual outcome of homelessness and hunger.
Three Strikes Against Poverty, Dropouts, Domestic Abuse
The biggest issue United Way and its partners are attempting to work on is bridging the achievement gap for people living in poverty as they funnel through elementary and secondary education. High school graduation rates for the county are low. The goal is to hit higher marks for low income and minority students by 2020. A second building block this community priorities directive is attempting to mitigate or erase is the high rate of abuse and neglect in Spokane’s families.
“When I first moved to Spokane, there were two distinct things I heard to describe this city: It’s a community of hard working poor and a great place to raise children,” says Marich. “When I came to United Way, I found out this isn’t a great place to raise all children.”
The third major area on their radar is the continuing trend of more and more poverty entrenched in Spokane’s families and in large swaths of neighborhoods. It’s a deeper issue than just throwing a life raft at it, she emphasized; rather, it is one where developing good paying jobs for people coming from traditionally poor families is key through the first priority: having a high school diploma and possibly two-year college degree or technical certificate.
The only way these programs can be actualized is with giant social capital and local expertise from volunteers.
Boots on the Ground
Imagining Second Harvest and its 6,000 volunteers doing the legwork for food packing and distribution of all that nutritional salvation conjures up a well-oiled operation. Picturing throngs of folks spanning five generations is emblematic of maybe the adage that Spokane does roll up its sleeves to help the needy. Rod Weiber points to one couple who has been volunteering regularly for 25 years, and another individual who’s 94 years old and comes to the facility regularly to volunteer.
The best volunteers are regulars, have a great attitude and seem to have an innate need to give back. Many times, volunteers were once victims of bad times and availed themselves of Second Harvest’s services.
Luckily, there are 360 volunteer centers in the U.S. touching 170 million people in thousands of communities. That’s 2.5 million volunteers connected to over 80,000 organizations. The Volunteer Center National Network has a powerful vision people from all walks of life, in every school setting and in every corporation should adopt: To strengthen the nation by igniting volunteering and social action through volunteer centers in local communities.
The gift that keeps on giving, volunteerism, builds community connections, harmonizes what democracy and helping your neighbor really means, is both spiritually and intellectually transformative and brings with it a certain steady, healthy state of physiological wellness. These pluses are experienced by the volunteer.
For the 50-year-old Weiber, he knows what corporate life working 80-hour weeks is all about. He said he had to move on from a lucrative career and find something rewarding, like the work he’s been doing at Second Harvest for going on five years. For 67-year-old Marich, she knows the high-pressure work of being a PR-communications specialist for the attorney general under Christine Gregoire and in DC as a lobbyist. She’s been a public information officer for the Santa Clara Health Department, and worked in California and Nevada for Pacific Bell. Before finding her home at United Way as vice president of community relations, she worked for Empire Health Services.
It’s clear in my life, working for refugees from Central America, many of whom were victims of torture and who left murdered loved ones behind in Guatemala, the work I did in El Paso and Juarez was small in comparison to the values and benefits those folks I volunteered for brought me. My mom’s from Canada, a small town four hours north of Vancouver, BC, and I remember as a child how neighbors gave food to old shut ins, and how itinerant workers ended up in my grandparents’ basement with a warm bed, three squares a day and respect in return for some help in the garden or with construction. We called them Uncle Bill. I had a lot of “Uncle Bills” in my life in Paris, Germany, Scotland, Iowa and Arizona and Texas.
A helping hand, some pointed direction, anything to assist our fellow humans in need, that’s the core to volunteerism. Horace Mann said it straight. “Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.”
Paul K. Haeder is a freelance writer who worked in Spokane as a community college instructor and journalist for over 11 years.
The positions taken in Metro Talk columns do not necessarily reflect the views of Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living magazine’s publisher or staff.