by Mary Siverson
Recent events in this area have brought attention to volunteerism and the need for communities to have large pools of volunteers ready to assist, whatever the challenge. During the 2011 Flood in Central North Dakota, volunteers played a major role in preparation, response, and on-going recovery activities. When the call came, volunteers stepped up. And the organization I currently lead as regional director stepped up, too.
RSVP+ North Dakota has facilitated meaningful volunteer service opportunities for 40 years. In fact, Bismarck-Mandan was one of the first RSVP projects in the nation. The initial 11 grants were awarded in 1971 aimed at tapping into a senior citizen volunteer labor force and, by doing so, improving their own health and well-being through their service. Because the endeavor was successful, RSVP nationwide was formed to match older-adult volunteers with community partners who are non-profit organizations and government agencies.
In 2009, the six RSVP regions under NDSU sponsorship rebranded as “RSVP+ North Dakota: Your Invitation to Serve North Dakota” with the mission of inviting individuals of all ages to enhance personal growth, develop leadership skills, and meet critical community needs through meaningful volunteer service opportunities. The rebranding was intended to allow volunteers of all ages the opportunity to serve and also paved the way for connecting specialized initiatives such as the Foster Grandparent Program, AmeriCorps*VISTA, Bone Builders, and the Amachi Mentoring Program.
For the year ending June 30, 1511 volunteers served 204,967 hours in the seven counties assigned to RSVP+ Central ND. Volunteers helped 224 host stations (partner agencies) that submitted requests and job descriptions. When asked, RSVP+ searches among the registered volunteers and facilitates a match. Host stations, in turn, help us track the volunteer hours according to the types of service provided: tutoring in elementary schools, delivering meals to the homebound, mentoring children, transporting wheelchair-bound residents to activities, tax consulting, and fundraising to name just a few — the list quite literally is endless.
Of course, volunteers step up in times of disaster also. RSVP+ took on the role of registering and tracking volunteers at the sandbag-filling sites so that city officials would have accurate volunteer records and timesheets. During major events, the benefit to communities of partnering with a volunteer matching organization is clear; nothing so obviously unifies a community like imminent peril. It’s all the other days of the year (those without an overt threat to life, safety, or property), however, where an organization like RSVP+ demonstrates its enduring value. For the host stations whose service missions year in and year out often cannot be achieved without support from volunteers, there is the tangible benefit of more hands and hearts to help them do their vital work.
For the volunteers, there are both tangible and intangible benefits. Beyond the personal satisfaction that countless volunteers say they get from sharing their time and expertise, the opportunity to lead projects and develop new skills, building resumes and networks, gaining connections to community, being part of something bigger than themselves–those who volunteer tend to live longer. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteering brings significant positive health benefits. And it’s more than just longevity; volunteers tend to be more physically and socially active, have greater functional abilities, and have lower rates of depression.
As I often say to our many volunteers of all ages, service is personal. Being needed is personal. We all likely volunteer more than we realize because we see it as “helping out.” Older adults lead the way because they have the most time and expertise to give, but placing inter-generational volunteers into service opportunities has been especially rewarding for me. Working with high school students serving hours for honor societies or service clubs, or with college students fulfilling their various service requirements brings both rewards and challenges. Younger volunteers typically are available only evenings and weekends, which has required some creativity by our host stations. And introducing grandchildren to the world of volunteering is particularly gratifying. One set of RSVP+ grandparents have their grandson help at a local food pantry. He was able to arrange the soup by their labels before he could read the printed words. He thought he was just spending time with his grandparents when, in reality, he was giving quality volunteer time to his community.
Being appreciated is personal, too. We host multiple events each year to thank our volunteers, and many of our host stations do as well. Bis-Man Transit provides free rides to registered volunteers. We also provide supplemental insurance coverage to help cover out-of-pocket costs if an accident occurs while volunteering. The most meaningful thanks, however, come from service recipients—the children, the hospital patients, the homebound, the isolated, the disabled, the homeless, and at times the general public. Whole communities sometimes have themselves to thank when issues are big. I was invited to a recent Bismarck City Commission meeting where RSVP+ Central ND was presented a Certificate of Appreciation for the volunteer service provided to the City of Bismarck. All the volunteers should feel good about such recognition even though we know it isn’t why we serve.
I am fortunate to be involved with the RSVP program for almost 11 years. I tell people I have the best job ever because I get to “help people help other people” every single day. This is a very rewarding job, and at least once a week I experience the role of a volunteer when I deliver meals to the homebound through the Burleigh County Senior Adults Program. I personally benefit so much from the connections I have on my meal route. This assignment has also allowed me to introduce service to my grandchildren. When schedules allow, I bring them along and help them understand why we take hot meals to those who cannot prepare lunch for themselves. The clients love to see children, and my grandchildren have fun. How often do we get to create opportunities where everybody wins? Volunteers do, every day.
For more information, contact RSVP+ at 701.258.5436, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at RSVPNorthDakota.org.
Mary Siverson is the Director of RSVP+ Central ND