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Despite Hard Times, Volunteering Spikes in US

  • Faiza Elmasry

Americorps volunteers mobilize in Joplin, Missouri, after a devastating tornado earlier this year.

Americorps volunteers mobilize in Joplin, Missouri, after a devastating tornado earlier this year.

Volunteer rate jumps among all race and ethnic groups

The number of Americans volunteering in their communities jumped by 1.6 million last year, the largest increase in six years, according to a recent government report.

According to “Volunteering in America,” 63.4 million Americans gave 8.1 billion hours through formal organizations in 2010. The volunteer rate went up among all race and ethnic groups.

“We have found out that volunteering is core to who we are as Americans,” says Heather Peeler, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency which conducted the study. “What we've found is that volunteers are working with youth through mentoring and tutoring. More than a quarter of volunteers are helping non-profit organizations raise needed funds. And one out of five volunteers are giving what we call ‘sweat hours,’ the general labor that’s needed to help non-profit organizations run.”

More essential than ever

The United States has a long tradition of volunteering, as opposed to many European countries where government is pervasive and provides most of basic services, like free daycare for children and comprehensive medical care. In addition, recent cuts in the budgets of many U.S. states have made volunteering even more essential.

According to Peeler, American volunteers provided services valued at nearly $173 billion last year. Utah ranked number one among the U.S. states. Among cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul, in Minnesota, led the way.

“The people in our communities in the greater twin cities say we’re not just going to complain about a problem, we’re going to do something to help solve it,” says Kathy Saltzman, executive director of the Minnesota Education Corps.

More than 900 of the organization's members donate a year, without pay, to help improve children's literacy.

“If children cannot read by 3rd grade, they have such an overwhelming obstacle to overcome in order to be successful because first you learn to read," says Saltzman. "After 3rd grade, you read to learn.”

Finding the time

Minnesota Education Corps also recruits volunteers like Mike Ginal, 51, who dedicates an hour a day, five days a week, to tutoring children.

“We get to the school and the kids come into a classroom where it is one-on-one interaction," says Ginal. "There is a set story for the child to read. We’re doing any corrections and basically tracking the student’s progress in comprehending the stories. We ask specific questions regarding the story. Also, we are checking them for how many words per minute they have benchmarking throughout the school year.”

Ginal and his wife have time to volunteer because their kids are grown.

“We’re not chasing our kids in their activities now and we definitely have more time to devote to the community," he says. "We’re involved in feeding the seniors here in town. This weekend we’re picking apples for the food banks from a donating apple orchard.”

Gen X gets involved

While Ginal belongs to the older generation of Americans known for their volunteering, the Volunteering America report finds people born between 1965 and 1981, known as Generation X, volunteered more time in 2010 than ever before, contributing 2.3 billion hours.

And young adults, partly due to social networking, are becoming more active as well.

Quinn Gardner, 25, is a volunteer coordinator at AmeriCorps, the national service organization. Her focus is disaster relief. Her volunteers are currently helping residents of Joplin, Missouri recover from a devastating tornado earlier this year.

“Some of my teams have been down here since day one," she says. "So in events of disaster, we specialize in volunteer management, donation management as well as direct services, helping owners gain access to their home, removing trees, roofs, creating space environments.”

According to Gardner, young people volunteer for many reasons.

“I think a lot of these people come out for the experience, to help someone else, give back and find themselves in the process."

CNCS spokeswoman Peeler hopes the study provides officials and non-profit groups with the information they need to mobilize more Americans to help meet pressing needs.

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