At least 61 million Americans volunteer their services each year -- for free and for a good cause. For some, their service is helping a neighbor with a backyard clean-up. For others, it's contributing time to citywide projects, or joining any of the hundreds of charitable, community service organizations located across the United States. This third week of April -- the 33rd annual National Volunteer Week -- is a time of the year when all that hard work and effort wins well-deserved recognition.
Thirty-nine-year old Henry Bockman owns a cleaning business in Germantown, Maryland. He's also the founder of Power Washers of North America, an organization of about 50-thousand contractors who volunteer their services and high-power spray equipment to clean public building exteriors stained by graffiti or by the elements. Bockman and his colleagues have worked on national monuments such as the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials in Washington, D.C., and Bockman says it's work they're proud of.
"When we were doing the Lincoln Memorial last year, for example," he says, "we probably had about seven- to ten-thousand tourists at the site, visiting the memorial. They were surprised that so many contractors would travel from so far away to donate their services to take care of our national monuments." Bockman says he and his crew derive "satisfaction from knowing we do something good for our community and our country. It gives us a chance to give something back to our country."
When 24-year old Adrianna Sgarlata of Fairfax County, Virginia, was a child, she was bullied mercilessly in school. She saw a lot of other kids in the same situation. So when she got to college, Sgarlata made sure she scheduled a lot of her courses at night so she could make the daily, long drive to the state legislature in the capital, Richmond, to convince lawmakers to require anti-bullying lessons in public schools. She would drive to Richmond with her parents, she recalls, "because I was tired as a student, and I was still studying for tests. I'd lobby legislators, meet with them to persuade them to vote for the law, from eight in the morning till noon, and then I would sleep on the way back while my parents drove home, then go to my night classes, and then I would get up and start again the morning."
Sgarlata's efforts helped convince the Virginia legislature to pass a law mandating bullying prevention courses in the schools. Today, 24-year old Adrianna Sgarlata travels to elementary and secondary classrooms statewide promoting her anti-bullying campaign. Her newfound stature as the winner of the 2006 Miss Virginia contest has helped generate kids' interest in and support for her anti-bullying campaign.
Volunteers are everywhere, at nursing homes, hospitals, AIDS clinics, homeless shelters, schools, parks, and recreation centers. Their services are not only helpful to the needy, but essential to the U.S. economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says volunteerism provides the country wage-free work worth more than 160 billion dollars a year.
And volunteerism continues to rise. A report issued this month by the Corporation for National and Community Service says volunteerism is now at an historic high. It attributes this renewed interest to "civic engagement after the terror attacks of 2001 and the hurricanes of 2005." The corporation estimates that in addition to the approximately 61 million volunteers counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last year, another five million work informally with their neighbors to improve conditions in their communities.
Much of modern American volunteerism is grounded in the nation's religious tradition and strong family cohesiveness, according to Henry Hayghe, a senior economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hayghe says the 35-through-54 age group has the highest volunteering rates.
"Frankly, I think this coincides with times when people are raising families, getting involved with their children's schools, their athletic teams. And a lot of their volunteering has to do with religious organizations sponsoring church-related activities," says Hayghe.
This year's National Volunteer Week is sponsored by the Target Corporation, a nationwide retail chain, and the Points of Light Foundation, a network of more than 300 local volunteer groups across the United States. Robert Goodwin, with the Points of Light Foundation, notes that in recent years, many American secondary schools have initiated community service as a prerequisite for graduation. "It's a chance for young people to learn first-hand how helping others promotes self-esteem," Goodwin says. He hopes that what might be their first exposure to volunteerism will inspire them to carry on this time-honored American tradition.