Resolve to volunteer

With so many choices to get involved, there’s a way if you’re willing
By Rebecca Berfanger

Although volunteer opportunities pop up around the holidays and will need people to fill them, organizations want additional support year-round.

“There’s never a bad time to volunteer,” says Nancy Plake, executive director of United Way of Johnson County.

Although United Way and its member organizations can always use volunteers, and a list of its almost 50 member organizations can be found on its website, Plake encourages anyone who wants to get involved to start with their personal interests. If you already financially support an organization, volunteering is a great way to see firsthand what that group is doing.

From an organization’s standpoint, Plake adds, when first connecting with a prospective volunteer, it’s a matter of considering the needs at a particular time, how a volunteer’s skills can support those needs, what a volunteer is willing to do, and how much time and what hours the volunteer is available. For instance, she says, there’s obviously a difference between a retired person who has free time during the day who happens to be good with tools, or an accountant or marketing professional who works business hours but can still donate their time to serve on committees, such as land acquisition or assist with administrative tasks.

Organization leaders also want volunteers to feel they are being appreciated and to remember why they choose to give their time, says Anne Sutton, Humane Society of Johnson County executive director. The humane society has a database of about 758 volunteers, with opportunities for people to clean and organize the food pantry, walk dogs, play with cats or clean the outside area, depending on the day. If someone meets the criteria and can attend a meeting to tour the facility, volunteers can sign up when they are available, even if it’s a couple of hours at a time.

However, she added, if a volunteer’s task doesn’t involve directly working with the dogs and cats, “we still make sure there is time for animal-human interaction.” After all, she says, one of the primary reasons people volunteer for the humane society is for the animals.

Project work

The humane society also has events where people can participate in a specific project. In September, it invited volunteers to help build 1,300 shelters out of Styrofoam containers for community/feral cats. Sutton says several groups provided volunteers.

In fact, most if not all organizations offer project-based opportunities for individuals and groups who want to get involved, Plank says.

Doug Grant is the development coordinator of Habitat for Humanity Johnson County. The organization is known for building homes for local families who pass a rigorous application process; once approved, applicants have a house built for them. Each project can involve up to 300 people during the course of a build, including those with little or no experience with construction but who are willing to learn and receive the necessary training.

Don’t want to build a house? Grant says Habitat also offers opportunities for volunteers to work with various committees, review applications of prospective homeowners and help with retail-related work at the ReStore, which offers a variety of furnishings, from appliances to furniture to ceiling lamps, with the proceeds going back to Habitat for Humanity.

Although volunteers are needed year-round, some opportunities have a specific season. For instance, Molly Laut, who works for the office of the mayor in strategic marketing and community relations, says that volunteers can help the Greenwood Parks and Recreation Department. “Volunteers, with the help of our parks maintenance team, plant over 7,000 flowers throughout the city every spring.”

If teams of volunteers reach out to Greenwood Parks and Recreation, Laut says, they’ll provide instructions for a specific project tailored to that group.

“We have a number of churches and businesses contact the city throughout the year to volunteer,” she says. “A few examples of this are Nachi (Technology), who assisted the Stormwater Department to establish close to 2,000 native plants at our Nature Center. Indiana American Water volunteered to re-stain and clean bat boxes and birdhouses in our parks. Greenwood Community Church volunteers in the fall for various cleanup projects, and Center Grove High School helps us winterize our waterpark, Freedom Springs.”

Getting to know you

Studies have shown that volunteering can improve mental health by reducing stress. It’s a way to meet other people in your community who share your interests and can even improve your job prospects as a form of networking and as a resume booster.

The Historic Artcraft Theatre, a nonprofit movie house in downtown Franklin, also uses teen volunteers, according to Jaime Shilts, director of events and programming. It needs volunteers for the 250 movie screenings and events each year, and in return volunteers can see movies for free, plus they get free popcorn and soda. Teen volunteers can also get community service credit and apply for scholarships. Volunteers who are at least 16 can also donate their time to Madison Street Salvage, which is owned and operated by the theater’s parent organization, Franklin Heritage Inc. The store sells antiques and architectural salvage, with proceeds going to the Artcraft Theatre.

But there is more to it for the volunteers, who range in age from 13 to 89, says Shilts.

“The Artcraft volunteers are like a big family,” she says. “Lots of people come to us, not just because they love movies, though many of them do, but to meet people and make new friends. Many of our volunteers socialize together outside of their volunteer time at the Artcraft.”

Grant has also seen volunteers reap social rewards on group projects, even for people who already know each other. For instance, during the Women Build in the fall, he spoke with some of the volunteers from teams, including one from Franklin College.

“I cooked lunch for them, and I got to chat with them. It was so neat for them to get out of the office and get to know their co-workers in a different light,” he says. “They get a sense of camaraderie and teamwork, which in turn enhances the workplace.”

During the United Way’s Day of Caring, Plake has seen similar outcomes when volunteers from area businesses get together to offer their help.

“So many times I hear volunteers say, ‘You know, it was just great to get away from my job, to get away from the desk, to get away from the phone,” she says. “We’ve come here, we’ve done this project as a team, it’s accomplished, and we’ve done a great job.”