Christopher J. Gearon

Volunteering is up, here's how to find the best fit for you

Though the economy is hurting, volunteering in the United States jumped last year at the fastest rate in six years. At least 63 million gave of their time and energy. "What we're seeing is the depth of the American spirit and generosity at its best," says Patrick Corvington, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that is the nation's largest grantmaker supporting service and volunteering. Many organizations are responding to the demand by offering more service options, creating leadership positions for volunteers, and providing virtual service opportunities to appeal to baby boomers, retirees, and young people.

"Volunteering patterns have changed," says Barb Quaintance, who heads up volunteer and civic engagement at AARP. Boomers, in particular, want more say in how they serve. In 2009, AARP started Create the Good, a network where people and nonprofits can connect around volunteering, "whether you have five minutes, five hours, or five days," says Quaintance.

The challenge for all volunteers is finding the best fit for themselves. "Look to creditable organizations or ones you know," Quaintance recommends. Regardless of your tastes, temperament, or availability, a wide range of opportunities can be found, each offering its own rewards.

Disaster Relief

For those who seek an adrenaline rush and have a flexible schedule, emergency response groups may be an appealing option. The largest is the American Red Cross ,which has more than 90,000 disaster workers, 93 percent of whom are volunteers. (Training is conducted at each of the 700-plus chapters.) Some 55,000 volunteers can be deployed nationwide; the rest can be mobilized only within their home area. "Volunteer in your local community first," advises Anita Foster, chief communications officer for the American Red Cross in Dallas. "Getting a call at 3 a.m. to help a family" whose house has burned "is a great way to get your feet wet."

When it's time for the big leagues, the Red Cross depends on volunteers to pick up at a moment's notice. Eleanor Guzik, 71, a nurse practitioner from Ventura, Calif., has been deployed to a number of disasters -- a tornado in Georgia, floods in North Dakota, and wildfires in her home state. Helping others when they need it most "is extremely satisfying," Guzik says.

Among other groups providing disaster relief are faith-based organizations like the Salvation Army , which assigns a small subset of its 3.4 million volunteers to emergency response. Since retiring as a Secret Service agent in 1996, Dave Freriks, 71, of Lubbock, Texas, has served as a volunteer at disasters in the American South and West, often for two weeks at a time. His missions have included responding to a fire at a nearby ethanol plant and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. "It keeps me young, and it keeps me active," Freriks says.

Though the Salvation Army did send volunteers to Haiti after the earthquake in January, it generally responds to U.S. disasters. Volunteers are summoned from the local region to deliver food and drinks to victims and provide emergency shelter, cleanup services, and communications. Catholic Charities USA and Samaritan's Purse an evangelical Christian relief organization, are two other faith-based groups that deploy volunteers when a disaster happens.

A Second Act

The growing trend of skills-based volunteering is "a big change from years past," says Corvington. Baby boomers and others with significant work experience want to segue to new service careers, while nonprofits realize they can leverage this influx of talent to expand their reach. Experience Corps , which has about 2,000 members, connected retired Budget Rent A Car executive Bill Schultz, 65, with an elementary school to help teach children to read in St. Paul, Minn. "You have to find a passion when you retire," says Schultz, who works three days a week at the school and finds it "very rewarding." Lindsay Moore, program spokesperson for Experience Corps, says prospective volunteers must formally apply, submit to a personal interview, and pass a background check. In addition, they must attend an orientation program and get at least 25 hours of training each year.

The largest network for people 55 and older is Senior Corps , which links more than 500,000 individuals to service opportunities in its three programs. The biggest of these, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), has members helping some 60,000 local organizations tutoring and mentoring children, assisting victims of natural disasters, improving the environment, and conducting safety patrols. They also provide business and technical support to nonprofits, including accounting, IT, and fundraising expertise.

Gary LaGrange, a retired Army colonel in Manhattan, Kan., wanted to expand his nonprofit, Help us Learn ... Give us Hope. The group collects and ships school supplies and books to children in war-torn nations. RSVP assigned "at least 100 volunteers" and, because of this, more than 400,000 kids have received 520,000 pounds of supplies and 550,000 books, he says.

Senior Corps also offers two other programs: Senior Companions help the elderly maintain independence by assisting them with daily tasks; and Foster Grandparents mentor and tutor children. For other "second act" opportunities, you can try AARP's Create the Good network or its other programs.

An Extended commitment

Got more time? Two full-time gigs to consider include the storied Peace Corps for international posts or the fast-growing AmeriCorps program to serve domestically.

Established under President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to promote goodwill, the Peace Corps has over the years sent nearly 200,000 Americans (who receive three months of training) to serve in 139 countries, from agribusiness workers in Malawi to engineers in Mexico. (Good news for liberal arts grads: Teaching English is in high demand in many parts of the world.) Jennifer Bailey, 29, worked on educational programs in the Dominican Republic, finishing her two-year hitch in May. "I received a world of education and professional work experience with Peace Corps," says Bailey, originally from Ohio, whose tasks ranged from teaching youths about trash management and river cleanup to helping women start income-generating projects. Bailey landed a position as a program analyst in September with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Besides gaining invaluable skills and fluency in foreign languages, Peace Corps volunteers get other perks, including medical and dental benefits, living allowances, student loan help, vacation time, and job placement support. (Check the Web site of the International Volunteer Programs Association for other opportunities to serve abroad.)

If you'd prefer a long-term assignment stateside, you might consider AmeriCorps, which uses volunteers to help address critical needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment. A variety of positions are available, from tutoring young people, assisting crime victims, and building homes to teaching computer skills, restoring parks, and responding to disasters. AmeriCorps plans to expand its ranks from 85,000 volunteers today to 250,000 by 2017.

In general, volunteers sign on for at least a year and can stay on longer if they desire. Dwight Owens, 28, of Collins, Miss., provided practical advice to more than 1,200 people with disabilities on how to manage daily tasks. He also checked that businesses in his area complied with federal laws regarding handicapped access, and helped transition people from nursing facilities and other institutions to their homes. "The program builds character," says Owens, who does all his work from a wheelchair. The former teacher and coach was paralyzed when he was hit by a drunk driver five years ago. The AmeriCorps application process took only a couple of weeks, and while there was some upfront training, Owens was impressed how quickly the program got him out "doing things for people."

Other AmeriCorps avenues include the National Civilian Community Corps, a full-time, team-based residential program for young adults, and AmeriCorps VISTA, focused on helping people out of poverty. All AmeriCorps participants get a modest living allowance, a $5,350 education award to pay for college-related costs (after completing the program), and student loan assistance. While young adults fill most of the ranks, 10 percent of volunteers are 55 or older. (Older adults can transfer their education award to a grandchild or others.) There are three applicants for every position, but you can boost your chances by applying to multiple programs (up to 10) and to rural postings, where there are heavy needs but fewer applicants. Information on all AmeriCorps programs can be found through the organization's main Web site.

Volunteer Vacations

Ever consider combining a vacation with service? After seeing people in need after Hurricane Katrina, "I just wanted to volunteer and do something," says Lisa King, 47, of Arlington, Va., who went to Mexico to build homes with Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program. The experience was so rewarding that King has taken annual, two-week volunteer vacations since. Last February, she helped build a town of modified mud huts in Ethiopia -- pouring foundations, erecting the wooden frames, and even tossing mud to fortify one home's exterior.

Habitat, one of the largest organizers of volunteer vacations, has hundreds of projects around the world involving home construction and renovation, or disaster relief. No experience is necessary, but participants should have "an interest, curiosity, and commitment to serve," says David Minich, Habitat's global volunteer director.

Volunteers pay for their airfare and, on average, about $100 a day to cover building supplies, room and board, and transportation within the country. Since most projects require manual labor, you should be in good health. "I can honestly say that I have never physically worked so hard" or "enjoyed myself so much," says Salli Innes, 57, a schoolteacher from Brookeville, Md., who built houses in Guatemala two years ago. Her husband, Rich, caught a free ride by serving as group leader.

If you have less vacation time, you might try Globe Aware, which hosts one-week volunteer programs around the world. About 15 percent of the group's roughly 4,500 vacationers are families. "We're one of the few nonprofits that allow" them, says spokesperson Catherine McMillan. Families with kids as young as 6 months travel to such places as Peru, Costa Rica, and Ghana for roughly $1,250 a person, plus airfare. Volunteers build recycling areas, clear paths in the rain forest, make cheese, milk cows, and take part in many other projects. "It's kind of like a vacation that needs you," says McMillan.

Volunteer vacations are not for those who like to be pampered. But if experiencing a new culture, "meeting the people, working with the families, and feeling like what you do matters," they are a great option, King says. It's also less expensive than a standard vacation. King went to India for two weeks for $1,200, plus airfare, for example. And thanks to a handy Global Village widget, she solicited donations from friends and colleagues that helped defray some of her costs.

To learn about other volunteer vacations, you can check out Global Volunteers ,, and Charity Guide.

Virtual helping hands

Chicagoan Summer Johansson, a 33-year-old student finance adviser, wanted to volunteer but couldn't fit traditional commitments into her schedule. The solution? In 2008, Johansson signed on to the online volunteering service of United Nations Volunteers , which looks for virtual assistance for a wide variety of tasks, including project development, design, research, writing, translation, and coaching. Johansson serves as a tutor and head coordinator with RESPECT University, which offers free post-secondary courses to refugees and displaced persons. She develops the syllabus, lessons, and assignments, then E-mails them to a ground liaison. "I currently have courses running in Afghanistan, Uganda, and Nepal," she says. Overall, the program used some 9,400 online volunteers of all ages in 2009. "All they need is a computer, an Internet connection, and skills," says Elise Bouvet of United Nations Volunteers, "and a commitment to making a real difference to peace and development."

While virtual volunteering may not offer personal one-on-one contact, it's more flexible than other options and is a great "CV enhancer," says Johansson. A number of sites can help you find virtual opportunities, including, which recruits for more than 74,000 organizations, and the HandsOn Network, an arm of the Points of Light Institute, which represents more than 70,000 corporate, faith, and nonprofit organizations. Finally, specifically matches young people with service options, over 1,700 of which are virtual.

DIY Volunteering

A fixture in her Wheaton, Md., community, Kathleen Michels is often seen yanking out invasive plants along a local creek, caring for a nearby community garden, or working with groups she had a hand in forming. This includes her neighborhood civic association and a coalition to "push back against the paving of our athletic fields with rocks, plastic, and pulverized tires" -- that is, artificial turf, she says.

Ask the National Institutes of Health neuroscientist, wife, and mother why she starts these and other efforts, she simply says: "It needed to be done." Michels, 52, figures she puts in 40 hours a month volunteering.

You can find many valuable tools online to advance your own cause, such as AARP's Create the Good program. It has created a slew of downloadable how-to guides -- from organizing river cleanups and holding school supply drives to helping others get good healthcare.

Marlene Ellis, 56, of Arlington, Va., last fall initiated her own food drive for a local food bank. Thanks to an AARP starter kit that provided suggestions, bags for food collection, and fliers to post, Ellis was able to collect 127 pounds of food in about a week. "I was so happy" when she delivered it to the food bank, she says. "It is nice to see how much I can accomplish on my own."

DIY projects can be time-consuming, so Michels recommends bringing in friends and neighbors to help when possible. "People respond to passion, commitment, and reasoned arguments," she says.

The upsides of self-directed work are immediately apparent. It's "usually more intellectually engaging since you are organizing and problem-solving and doing research" on your own, Michels notes. She believes she is testament that even shy people can tackle and solve problems in the community or the world, saying, "Success breeds confidence."


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