116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Throughout the pandemic, a widespread challenge for nonprofit agencies has been maintaining volunteer levels that support the work at hand.
Some organizations lost volunteers due to concerns about contracting COVID while donating time to a cause. Some lost volunteers due to the elimination of positions at corporations with on-the-clock volunteer time as an employee benefit. Some volunteers now faced supervising the virtual education of their children or grandchildren that required a reassessment of volunteer time commitments.
No matter the cause, the outcome has been the same: nonprofits have had to adjust the way services are provided and do more with even less.
Every day, it seems, people are becoming more confident resuming the human interaction we took for granted only two years ago. While we may be rusty in terms of in-person communication and maintaining socially acceptable levels of eye contact, this is an opportunity for us to reflect on the way we socialize with each other and with the community as a whole.
I stewed over the way forward with Angelica Vanatta, senior manager of volunteer engagement at United Way of East Central Iowa over a platter of egg rolls and a flight of sauces at Fong’s. “We are starting to come back to traditional levels,” she told me, “At our Day of Caring event this year, participation was doubled compared to 2020. We had 99 projects and 700 volunteers during the one-day event.”
Volunteer sign-ups at United Way have steadily increased with the availability of vaccinations, despite fewer older adults donating their time. Angelica believes that the impact of movements against racial injustice has also affected the demographic makeup of those taking on volunteer work. She hopes to see more engagement of diverse voices in strategy and structural level volunteer roles (like a Board of Directors.)
“Because of my volunteer work, I will be better prepared for the future and will have more connections from the networking I have engaged in here.”
Inspired, I tracked down some young adults serving as Americorps volunteers to interrogate them about the decision to dedicate time to the community.
Ambur Hageman is a public health grad student currently serving her second round as an Americorps volunteer at Horizons. Her first experience was in Pittsburgh, but she finds fulfillment in her work here in Cedar Rapids. Americorps offers a small grant-funded living allowance to support engagement in nonprofit work. “Unpaid internships are not practical for so many of us. It feels good to be doing the work in my own community, and the stipend offered by Americorps makes it possible to target work that interests me and learn how nonprofits work firsthand while I’m still in school.”
These sentiments were echoed by fellow Americorps VISTA and Social Work student Ashley Shadley-Xu: “Because of my volunteer work, I will be better prepared for the future and will have more connections from the networking I have engaged in here.”
Both foresee a future of continued volunteerism and were particularly impacted by direct interaction with those in need. Ashley considered the collective experience of isolation, adding, “The pandemic made us feel so disconnected; but also offered us the opportunity to reflect and learn. Now is the time for us to act on what we have learned about ourselves and the community.”
Opportunities to volunteer with the United Way can be found here.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org