How to celebrate National Volunteer Week

COVID-19 has presented challenges to both staffing and financing for charitable causes around the world. This year, non-profits are using National Volunteer Week (April 18-24) to ramp up support.

“There’s never been a more important time than now to get involved,” said Laura Plato, chief solutions officer for VolunteerMatch, an online platform that connects causes to people who want to be of service.

According to a study by Fidelity Charitable, the coronavirus pandemic sharply impacted volunteer efforts, with two out of three volunteers decreasing or completely halting their work.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, about 93 percent of volunteering had been canceled. As we rounded out the year, it was about 80 percent,” explained Plato.

“Now we have about 4.6 million opportunities for volunteers.”

“Many of the disaster response agencies have had a good portfolio of volunteers coming forward, but what we see is a lot of our smaller grassroots organizations are still really in need of people to help, raise funds, organize, advocate for their causes,” Plato told CNN.

“It’s important right now that we come together and figure out how to share and support each other.”

The history of volunteer week

National Volunteer Week is an annual observance recognizing volunteers providing vital support in their communities. Additionally, the week encourages more people to consider volunteering. The first volunteer week started in Canada in 1943 to celebrate women’s contributions on the homefront during World War II. In 1974, President Richard Nixon established National Volunteer Week with an executive order. Now, many countries worldwide have joined in.

The life of a consummate volunteer

Eighty-five-year-old Everette Burkard has been a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels in Nevada County, California, for 30 years. He has clocked over 47,000 miles delivering meals to older adults facing hunger and isolation.

“I never imagined that volunteering would become a lifestyle, but it certainly has for me,” he explained.

“It’s something that’s an enjoyable distraction.”

Burkard says he began volunteering for Meals on Wheel in 1991 after retiring from a 40-year career with the Federal Civil Service. But that wasn’t his first foray in giving back. Burkard served on his local school board, spent five years as a volunteer firefighter, and 20 years playing his Dobro guitar in a band called the Fruit Jar Pickers. They performed free of charge every Sunday morning at local assisted living facilities and convalescent hospitals around town. But he said Meals on Wheels has been the most gratifying volunteer experience.

“I got a chance to help people who couldn’t get out and get food and talk with them a little bit and see how they were doing,” Burkard told CNN.

“So, it was like a very personally rewarding thing to do.”

Meals on Wheels suffered a decline in volunteers amid the pandemic, but Burkard continues to deliver as many older volunteers stepped back.

“I didn’t even think about that; I just want to continue doing it.”

As for what inspires Burkard to keep giving his time, “I think it’s important for everybody to contribute something to their community rather than being an isolationist,” said Burkard.

“And I was doing just that.”

Take action

“We don’t volunteer because we think we’re better than somebody else; we do it because it just makes the world better,” said VolunteerMatch’s Laura Plato.

Although the pandemic has presented some barriers to traditional volunteerism, non-profits have gotten creative in finding ways to get volunteer support.

“This Volunteer Week is a chance to really get out there, get educated, get reinspired, reinvigorated, and think about how you can be of service either in person in your community or virtually and digitally online because there’s lots of great opportunities to do both,” Plato said.

“There are things that you can do with your hand and things you can do with your heart.”

Here is how you can make a difference this Volunteer Week and beyond:

  • Thank a volunteer — Whether it’s a gift, social media post, phone call, text message, or handwritten note, there are endless ways to tell those who give their time, “thank you.” This week is a great time to celebrate and acknowledge the volunteer’s service.
  • Donate your time — Both Points of Light and VolunteerMatch make it easy to search for volunteer opportunities by location and interest. Making time to make a difference your way can be very impactful. If you need further incentive, Points of Light also recognizes individual service contributions with the Daily Point of Light Award. Plato suggests those thinking about volunteering in person to consider a non-profit’s Covid-19 precautions to ensure a safe volunteer environment.
  • Support your local food bank or anti-hunger initiative — The economic impact of Covid-19 has caused a secondary pandemic: hunger. While the demand has increased on non-profits who tackle hunger, volunteers have dropped off. Nevertheless, the work must go on, and food banks need your help. Both Feeding America and Meals on Wheels need volunteers to support national food banks and meal delivery efforts.
  • Volunteer virtually — Plato suggested potential volunteers think creatively about ways to help. “Things that you might never think about are totally available virtually,” she said. Opportunities to tutor, mentor, or even provide crisis counseling are all available online or via text. Non-profits like the Crisis Text Line and On-Call Listeners have trained volunteers who can be sympathetic to people in need. “There are opportunities for crafters to make blankets for local animal shelters, administrative tasks, and even graphic design tasks that you can do in that realm.” Points of Light has a virtual volunteer database of opportunities to meet critical needs and VolunteerMatch has a growing directory of Covid-19 specific virtual opportunities.