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Who are America's Volunteers?


In every American community, volunteers are caring for the elderly, reading to young children, tutoring students, feeding the poor and much more. A new study suggests that while volunteers donate their time and expertise for different reasons, they all derive similar satisfaction from their work.

San Francisco attorney Helen Kerr is retired, but she's still working. "I've been happily volunteering for the last three years," she says. "It makes me very happy because I'm able go out into the community and talk to the seniors and the seniors' children -- whoever will listen to me! -- and talk about the prevention of elder abuse, prevention of financial exploitation and give them all the tools that they need to help themselves not become a victim."

Many older Americans find their job skills are still valued once they leave the paid work force. But some people don't wait until retirement to volunteer. Ja'Detrus Hamilton,17, has been volunteering since he was 11. Now, the high school senior from rural Mississippi is an involved member of two youth volunteer programs.

"I've done any type of volunteering you could think of: for children, we collect school supplies," he says. "We read children stories to them. Recently, I volunteered in a camp for cancer patients who are children. I stayed one week with them just like a big brother. We had them go fishing, canoeing, and I just was there for them in their time of need. As for elderly, we did anything: house keeping work, cleaning up yards, planting trees and flowers for the community. And for Hurricane Katrina, I really stepped up, collecting school supplies and clothes and non-perishable items and things to take down to the Coast and give to the kids in need and to the families just to support them in their time of loss."

Even busy people - like Yashica Woodard, 25 - find time to volunteer. The single mother of two from Atlanta, Georgia, works two jobs to support her family, and helps out in her children's school. "I created a couple of programs to help out parents such as the food pantry, where parents who are having troubles providing food for their children, we provide them with baskets of food such as canned food or any type of boxed food," she says. "Also, because we're a hundred percent uniformed school, we created the Uniform Trading Post, where parents bring in slightly used uniforms and we recycle them and give them to other parents. 'Read Aloud' is another program where we get volunteers once a week to come in to read to the classes for 20 minutes a day."

Woodard is one of millions of Americans who make time in their busy schedules to reach out and help others.

"About one third of our population volunteers," says David Eisner CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The private group recently conducted the first in-depth analysis on volunteering habits and trends across America.

"What was surprising that we found in the study is that women with jobs, women with children, volunteer more than anybody," he says. "We looked at these numbers and said, 'Hey aren't you busy?' What the study was telling us is that people with broader social networks are more likely to volunteer. So women with jobs and children are talking to more people during the day; they are more likely to get asked to help out on something, and they are more likely to see opportunities in their communities as they arise."

The state of Utah has the highest rate of volunteerism, says Eisner, followed by Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Alaska. "There are different reasons in different states," he says. "In Utah, clearly the Church, the Mormon Church, has a very strong influence with its focus on missions and service. That seems to penetrate the schools and the civic institutions, as well. In places like Nebraska and Minnesota, there seems to be a civic ethic where service is important. A lot of the social institutions in those states, whether we're talking about fire departments or hospitals or libraries or other social kinds of activities, are dominated by volunteers. So there is a historical element as well."

The activities volunteers do also vary from one state to another. "In a state like Mississippi, the most common type of volunteering is collecting and preparing and distributing food," he says. "In a state like Nebraska, the most common activity is supporting transportation of people and supplies and also doing labor -- for example, building houses. In California the most common volunteer activity is mentoring and tutoring."

No matter what activity volunteers do, Eisner says their work cultivates a sense of hope. It helps communities meet social needs without additional financial costs. In return, he says, volunteers find personal fulfillment and more. "We know, for example, for older Americans who volunteer, we see lower incidences of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes; fewer cases of depression; less high blood pressure," he says, explaining that being active and caring about something passionately is healthy. "We also see that once we get people volunteering, they always come back. It's an addictive sort of thing, because there is nothing that makes you feel better than helping someone else feel good."

Many U.S. school systems now require students to volunteer in the community for a set number of hours in order to graduate. David Eisner would like to see those programs expanded. He says when civic service is a component of the curricula in schools and universities, younger generations are prepared to become future volunteers.

"This could be done around history, for example, where a class might take a job of upkeep in a historic park," he says. "Or it can be done in the area of mathematics or science where a class might go to a beach and take water samples and help measure levels of pollution or might help build something using mathematics to determine the architecture and the angles. We find service-learning actually improves academic achievement because kids are engaging in their knowledge. They are actually using it to make somebody else's life better and it seems to stimulate that kind of civic engagement and civic attitude that translates later on into volunteering."

David Eisner says he would like to see 10 million more Americans volunteering by the year 2010, a goal embodied in his group's so-called 10 by 10 campaign. To achieve this goal, he says, service groups need not only to attract younger volunteers but also to encourage more of the country's growing minority communities to come out and lend a hand.

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