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More than 3 million New Yorkers will make volunteering a part of their lifestyle in 2018, if history is any measure. A brief survey of volunteerism in the Greater Jamestown Area and Chautauqua County makes it clear that volunteering is a powerful engine of support for local communities. The most common areas for volunteering locally include religious organizations, school and youth programs, and service organizations.
Volunteering in New York State is credited with contributing nearly 560 million hours of service, calculated at an annual worth of more than $14 billion. Agencies, individuals and communities that benefit from such a massive contribution, however, say the benefits to the volunteers themselves sometimes even outpace the benefits to those they serve.
Volunteering promotes learning new skills, contributing lifelong skills and serving in programs as varied as local school projects and life-saving disaster relief. Some volunteers – Chautauqua County is home to more than a dozen all-volunteer fire departments, for example – even risk their lives every day to save or better the lives of others. They usually resist the label of “hero” but will accept “friend indeed to those in need.”
Volunteers make things happen. Their reasons are as varied as their rewards.
“Volunteering can be a door-opener to a whole career,” said Mary Autumn Yearnberg, a volunteer at the Chautauqua County Humane Society. She was talking about the young people who work with the society’s rescued animals, from dogs to lizards and from cats to lop-eared rabbits.
“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without volunteers,” said Kellie Roberts, the Humane Society’s director. “And it is so rewarding for them, the animals, and their new families.”
The Humane Society alone clocks as many as 28,000 hours a year of volunteer time from up to 500 volunteers who serve as often as every day to merely a few times a year, according to Rachel Johnson, the society’s volunteer coordinator. The national ranks of veterinarians, wildlife biologists and ecologists would probably be thinner if not for opportunities like the humane society over the years, according to U.S. Forest Service career counselors.
High school and college-aged hospital volunteers over the years at WCA often found that their time opened the door to careers as hospital administrators, doctors and nurses. The new affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center may create even more enticing pathways from volunteering to a profession.
Sometimes retirement years become “The Giving Years” according to Debbie Basile, project director at Lutheran for RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program), providing nearly $2 million in services to Chautauqua County annually, offering placement for about 735 volunteers in more than 70 different local, non-profit organizations. Lutheran also manages the Foster Grandparents Program for seniors over 60 to connect with children in circumstances where an elder mentor can make a difference.
Retirement also allows Yearnberg to redirect her lifelong skills gained in 44 years as a secretary with the Jamestown school system and seven with the Resource Center. She now volunteers as secretary for the Senior Council at Fairway Pointe Senior Village in Lakewood – a rewarding part-time contribution that leaves time to follow her passion for adopting, caring for and finding new lifetime homes for cats of every kind at the Humane Society. Mary Autumn simply loves cats.
Sometimes Jamestown and Chautauqua County send their kindest people away. The American Red Cross, for instance, trains local volunteers to assist in disaster relief. One Jamestown DAT (Disaster Action Team) member tells of staffing a church refuge during a blizzard in Northern Chautauqua County for residents who were flooded out of their their homes by ice dams that drowned an Erie lakeshore community. Another time the team arranged housing and clothing for a Falconer resident whose roof collapsed under heavy snow.
DAT volunteers also bring useful skills home from distant disasters, like one who recalls the work of digging out after the devastation of an entire town from an F4 tornado.
Sometimes volunteering is just plain fun. Welcoming visitors to Jamestown from across the country and around the world is a volunteer job always enjoyed by greeters and tour guides for the annual Lucy Fest celebration. “I meet the nicest people,” a volunteer told the Gazette. “Sometimes I learn as much from our tourists as they learn from me. But everybody is in such wonderful spirits!”
Other tourist attractions, for example, the Fenton History Center, the Audubon Community Nature Center and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, proudly rely on their volunteers. They also commit time and passion to training them in the science, history and deeper insights that delight and educate their guests.
“Our volunteers are amazing people,” said Paula Beckman, office manager at the Fenton, echoing Ruth Lundin, director of the Audubon and its 300 volunteers turning in 12,000 hours every year. Whether it is the spectacle of history unfolding in the Fenton’s genealogical and historical research programs or the enjoying the splendors of nature, volunteers are at the focus.
Crisp red jackets and a friendly smile clearly identify WCA’s more than 100 volunteers who Liz DeRosa, WCA volunteer coordinator explained “…love what they are doing!” They offer a welcome at the front desk and a helping hand for patients and families alike in unfamiliar hospital environments. “Volunteers experience a real sense of purpose helping people travel through the hospital for diagnostics and care,” DeRosa added. “Volunteers in our gift shop find the hospital an uplifting place to offer their time, too.”
Many people need someone to walk beside them in difficult times. Volunteers make a huge difference at The Salvation Army every year, raising $100,000 or more to provide thousands of Christmas gifts, other necessities and countless meals to individuals and families, through the efforts of Red Kettle volunteers and hundreds of generous gift givers across the community.
When children and teens need assistance in areas like academic tutoring, athletics and employment opportunities, many turn to volunteers with Chautauqua Striders.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA of Chautauqua County with offices in Mayville) are specially trained community volunteers who are appointed by the court to speak for the best interests of abused and neglected youth in an effort to find them safe permanent homes.
Meals on Wheels of the Jamestown Area provides hot and cold, home-delivered meals Monday through Friday across most of Chautauqua County. Volunteers help promote independence, self-determination, and dignity for frail, homebound, elderly, or disable persons by providing meals and other supportive services.
Soup kitchens figure strongly in Jamestown’s commitment to filling in the gaps for individuals and families in distress, especially in the winter months. St. Susan Center relies on volunteers in a special way for that. “We have 200 volunteers,” said Jeff Smith, St. Susan’s director, “and each one brings his or her own life story and experiences to the table. Our guests often need more than soup. They also need food for the soul and a kind word from someone who remembers their name. It is a wonderful volunteer opportunity and we can always use more.”
Service Clubs often allow people to volunteer in ways they cannot achieve personally. Major international projects to eradicate disease, starvation and poverty or to recover from natural disasters and wars, require enormous infrastructures and complex organizations no individual can duplicate alone.
The greater Jamestown region is home to many such organizations which accept contributions to support their goals. Contributions and membership enable individuals to join a national or worldwide army of volunteers.
Such service organizations with local branches include (with brief extracts of their mission statements):
- AAUW – Advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research.
- Elks – To instill the principles of Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love and Fidelity… belief in God…American patriotism.
- Kiwanis – Empowers communities to improve the world by making lasting differences in the lives of children.
- Lions – Empowering volunteers to serve their communities, meet humanitarian needs, encourage peace and promote international understanding, with emphasis on providing eyeglasses, hearing aids, health-related services, scholarships or educational needs.
- Rotary – Community leaders promoting integrity, and advancing world understanding, goodwill, and peace and currently by the permanent eradication of polio worldwide.
- Sertoma – To improve the quality of life today for those at risk or impacted by hearing loss through education and support.
- Zonta – A global organization of professionals empowering women worldwide through service and advocacy.
Volunteer to Help Yourself
Volunteering is a powerful force in Chautauqua County, uniting people with a passion to serve with service opportunities that make a difference. The examples above represent only a small fraction of the opportunities available and are not intended to suggest any as superior to the vast majority of other excellent opportunities available.
According to researchers reporting in Harvard Health Publications, helping others triggers happiness in the helper. They discovered that “…the more people volunteered, the happier they were.” For people who volunteered on a weekly basis, 16 percent reported being “very happy” as compared to people who never volunteer. Researchers found that regular volunteering had the same impact on happiness as having an income of $75,000 to $100,000 as compared to a $20,000 annual salary.
The Jamestown Gazette is proud to present volunteering as one more idea for any reader who is still looking for a New Year’s Resolution worth making.