The gift of time

Recruiting, retaining volunteers remains critical challenge

  • Idaysha Acorn, 8, Amanda St. Francis, 7, Siera Lewis, 7, Dean Vargas, 17, Nariyah Acorn, 7, and Kyla LeBlanc, 6, have fun playing outside in the spring weather at the Pine View Children's Program, where Vargas volunteers weekly to play with the children.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Idaysha Acorn, 8, Amanda St. Francis, 7, Siera Lewis, 7, Dean Vargas, 17, Nariyah Acorn, 7, and Kyla LeBlanc, 6, have fun playing outside in the spring weather at the Pine View Children's Program, where Vargas volunteers weekly to play with the children.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Volunteer Dean Vargas, 17, of Peterborough plays plays a game of pass with Kyla LeBlanc, 6, left, Amanda St. Francis, 7, Siera Lewis, 7, and Idaysha Acorn, 8, all of Peterborough last week at the Pine View Children's Center in Peterborough.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Volunteer Dean Vargas, 17, of Peterborough plays plays a game of pass with Kyla LeBlanc, 6, left, Amanda St. Francis, 7, Siera Lewis, 7, and Idaysha Acorn, 8, all of Peterborough last week at the Pine View Children's Center in Peterborough.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Idaysha Acorn, 8, Amanda St. Francis, 7, Siera Lewis, 7, Dean Vargas, 17, Nariyah Acorn, 7, and Kyla LeBlanc, 6, have fun playing outside in the spring weather at the Pine View Children's Program, where Vargas volunteers weekly to play with the children.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Volunteer Dean Vargas, 17, of Peterborough plays plays a game of pass with Kyla LeBlanc, 6, left, Amanda St. Francis, 7, Siera Lewis, 7, and Idaysha Acorn, 8, all of Peterborough last week at the Pine View Children's Center in Peterborough.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Volunteer Dean Vargas of Peterborough plays with the children at the Pine View Children's Center last week.<br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

Dean Vargas of Peterborough seems to be everywhere at once. First, he’s blowing bubbles with the kids who make up the Pine View Children’s Program in Peterborough. Then, they want to play a game of ball, and Vargas is up for that, too. Next is a game of tag in which he’s everyone’s favorite target. It’s exhausting to watch, but Vargas doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he shows up at the program every week to do it again — and he’s not paid. He’s a volunteer.

“I get to come here and hang out and play and have fun with the kids,” he said with a laugh Wednesday. “That’s all I really do.”

Vargas, 17, said he was part of the after-school program as a child, and wanted to give back to the organization as an adult. Vargas is a Sea Cadet, which requires volunteer hours, but his time at the children’s program is separate from his Sea Cadet volunteer hours, he said.

“Everyone’s got to give back something to the community,” he said. “This program feels like it needs it. And every day is a new learning experience for me. Just the other day, a third grader taught me to make an origami horse . I’ve never done that before. It’s amazing to get to see something from a different perspective every time I come here.”

Vargas may feel the experience is rewarding, but right now no one else is reaping the benefits of the work. He’s the only volunteer Southern N.H. Services Western Hillsborough County Family Services’ Peterborough Family Program has helping out with their low-income childcare programs.

As the state tightens purse strings on funding for local nonprofit and charitable organizations, volunteers are an increasingly valued part of the nonprofit workforce. But time is a commodity, and enticing volunteers and keeping them is becoming more difficult for some area nonprofits.

The problem of time

Roland Patten of Peterborough has been volunteering since he was a young man, most frequently on town boards and in politics. He’s served stints on the Peterborough Budget Committee, as a ballot clerk and as a selectman. But he’s also involved in coaching and is a member of the Peterborough Lion’s Club, and has been for years.

Patten said many people tend to look around and seek volunteer opportunities in their retirement years, and retirees often have the most time for regular volunteer opportunities. That gives the impression of an aging volunteer community. But it’s not that people of a younger generation aren’t volunteering — they’re just doing it in different places, he said. Volunteer fire departments, for example, or with their local church or their children’s school.

Kathy Baird agreed. She’s the program director for RSVP Volunteer Center, a Peterborough- and Keene-based organization that helps link volunteers with charitable organizations. Baird said New Hampshire is number three in the country when it comes to assisting neighbors, which many people don’t really view as volunteerism. People with day jobs or families tend to seek out what Baird referred to as “episodic” volunteering opportunities — short-term commitments that last a set amount of time.

“They are busy people who have to balance work and home life. Episodic volunteer opportunities that they can enjoy with their family, such as cleaning up a park on Earth Day, can fit into that lifestyle,” she said.

Erika Alusic-Bingham, the program manager at Southern N.H. Services Western Hillsborough County Family Services , a Monadnock United Way organization, said she sees volunteers at two ends of the spectrum in the programs that provide after-school childcare for low-income housing units in Peterborough. She generally gets volunteers who are retirement age or those still in high school, like Vargas. And the reason is, those are the people who have free time in the afternoons when the program runs, she said. Only very occasionally will the program get working-age adults, and they are usually between careers or young women who will stay on until they start a family of their own, she said.

An aging volunteer
population

Usually, Southern N.H. Services Western Hillsborough County Family Services asks volunteers to facilitate activities and provide an extra set of hands and eyes for the children in the after-school programs, said Alusic-Bingham.

Having an aging volunteer population is problematic for a program that provides childcare, she said, because they don’t always have the energy and strength to keep up with young children. In recent years, the program lost two regular volunteers who expressed concerns about their ability to carry the younger children in the infants program, or help with more active activities like sports.

Making the commitment

The rewards of volunteering are great, said Alusic-Bingham. But they’re emotional rewards and often, with more people busier with more activities, jobs and family life, volunteering falls by the wayside. When something has to give, it’s often volunteering that’s the first to go. Structured volunteer work, for which the volunteer is solely responsible for a duty, will often keep volunteers longer, noted Alusic-Bingham, because there is a sense of responsibility. But for the position that is supported by a staff member, like the ones at Southern N.H. Services, there are no repercussions for not showing up.

“If you stop going to work, you don’t get paid. If you stop going to class, you don’t get your degree. If you stop volunteering, there’s not really any consequence,” Alusic-Bingham said.

Rob Gillis, the associate director for Monadnock Worksource — a Peterborough organization that provides care for individuals with mental and physical disabilities, and strives to integrate them with the local community and workforce — said the organization places a large emphasis on the population they serve going out into the community and volunteering. Not only does it forge bonds between their clients and the community, but volunteering often offers valid job experience and life skills.

Volunteers coming into Monadnock Worksource from the community are pretty far and few between , Gillis said, and often can only do a short-term commitment. Not many people know about what they do or their volunteer needs, he said. The organization works with RSVP to find volunteers when there is a specific need to fill, such as tutoring.

The volunteers Monadnock Worksource sends out into the community, however, are taught to treat their volunteering as an important extension of their job responsibilities, and have been involved with charitable organizations like Meals on Wheels and local food pantries for years.

“It teaches important life skills, instills a sense of personal responsibility, and gets the people we serve out into the community in a positive way,” said Gillis in a recent interview at Monadnock Worksource. “We treat our volunteering as a long-term and serious commitment. When we make an arrangement with an organization, we expect it to be a long-lasting one.”

Southern N.H. Family Services childcare programs have always had trouble attracting and retaining volunteers for long stretches of time, Alusic-Bingham said. Although the job does not require a huge amount of time — two hours per week at a minimum — it does require commitment and flexibility. Because they are working with small children, return volunteers are ideal for children who often become attached. And volunteers have to be able to go with the flow and change plans depending on what the children are in the mood for that day, and that’s not something that volunteers are always willing to accommodate, said Alusic-Bingham.

Strategies for success

While the nature of volunteering with young children requires flexibility, Baird said many volunteers seeking opportunities now come with particular skill sets they want to see used. One of the keys to keeping volunteers is matching their skill sets with the right job.

“Nowadays, people are caregivers, they travel and are involved in other activities. They want more from their volunteer opportunities. They want to have educational opportunities, connect to other people, and see that their time is used in a way they can really see their impact,” she said.

Alusic-Bingham said that in her line of work, she sometimes encounters an opposite problem. Volunteers will shy away from a program in which they’re working with children because they don’t think they’re adequately qualified. But the program is designed never to throw volunteers into a situation they’re not prepared to handle, Alusic-Bingham said. The volunteers are never left alone with the children, for example, although they may be placed in charge of an activity in the same area as a paid staff member. And much of the time, their responsibilities don’t extend past simply playing with the children, which doesn’t require any special skill.

Gillis said that matching a skill set to a job may provide high satisfaction, but doesn’t guarantee a long-term commitment. Monadnock Worksource uses RSVP to match skilled volunteers with jobs where they can pass on work skills to the Worksource population. Whether it’s a tutor for reading skills, or someone to help facilitate learning more about computers, or local musicians coming in to play music, skilled volunteers still have the same time pressures, and most of them aren’t able to make a regular, long-term commitment.

The other way to keep satisfied volunteers is simple and costs little, Baird said, and that’s to simply give them acknowledgement and support. Just checking in and validating their work can do an enormous amount in making a volunteer feel needed, supported and appreciated, she said.

“Sometimes just saying thank you is a huge thing,” said Baird.

In order to attract and keep volunteers, organizations should be ready to receive them, be willing to utilize the skills they bring to the table, and validate their worth, Baird said. They should also take into account the changing demographic of skilled workers, and look at more creative ways to use volunteers that come with valuable experience.

“Volunteers are just as important as employees and need the same level of support. Organizations need to be innovative with their volunteer opportunities. In some cases, volunteers can do important work at the same high level as paid employees. They can assist in technology services, training, course work, strategic planning or performance measurements,” Baird said. “These are things they use paid staff for, but it’s a need skilled volunteers can fill.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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