Columns

One Small Voice: Volunteers are our unsung heroes

by Lynn Mandaville

I was given a wonderful opportunity this past week. The librarian who oversees volunteers for the City of Chandler (AZ) Public Library invited me to accompany her to the city’s annual volunteer recognition breakfast. One of our library’s volunteers had been nominated for the top award for her work over the past two years establishing the on-line book sales for Chandler’s Friends of the Library.  

This was no small accomplishment for one woman. Unpaid, on her own time when not doing other volunteer work, she researched, worked out the financial feasibility, determined the profit breaking point and presented her findings so she could institute the program. To date, on-line book sales net the Chandler Public Library about $1,100 per month. Tasty icing on top of the library’s budget cake. 

Ah, the impact of one volunteer!

The morning program itself was a joyous celebration of the hundreds of volunteers throughout Chandler who work tirelessly to make the quality of life better for its people. The programs run the gamut from working at the library (which has an active roster of 200+ volunteers all its own, doing broad-ranging tasks and programs), to working in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, to assisting with crisis centers, at-risk youth programs, senior center activities, programs at the Center for the Arts, to the many arts programs through the center and the schools, and on and on and on.

Everything I heard at this event made me curious to know more about the impact of volunteerism in the United States.  Here is some of what I learned.

According to the most recently compiled statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015), 24.9% of America’s residents volunteer in formal volunteer settings. This equals 62.6 million people performing 7.9 billion hours of service (yes, that’s billion with a B) per year. If we include informal volunteerism (such as shoveling snow or mowing grass for a neighbor), the percentage of participation jumps to a whopping 62.5% of the population.  And, at that, the number is at the lowest point in a decade.

Parenthetically, for the state of Michigan, 26.6% of its residents volunteer in formal settings, ranking it 26th in the nation. (Not bad being middle of the road in middle America.) This represents 2,114,949 individuals working a total of 219 million hours of service to others. Arizona, by comparison, ranks 38th.

So even though the breakfast celebration inspired me for the remainder of one day, these statistics fill me with an enduring love of and faith in my fellow human beings. When we’re not all lumped in with the political goings-on and mob mentality of the nation, Americans are overwhelmingly concerned with quality of life, especially for the least among us.

As individuals, we see to the nutritional and emotional needs of our seniors; we provide for abused women and children; we tend to veterans and the homeless (who often overlap); we encourage and financially support the arts for all ages; we address illiteracy and the needs of those who are learning English as a second language; we soothe drug-addicted newborns in the NICUs of our hospitals; we give time as scout leaders and Big Brothers and Sisters; and we address food insecurity in our poorer neighborhoods.

This happens in big cities, mid-size cities, small towns, and rural hamlets all over this land, every day, all year long.

In this, America can and should feel pride that we do so much.

But on an individual level, this pride is not what I witnessed. Every person who was recognized seemed uncomfortable being singled out for his or her contributions to the community. They blushed, and kind of “aw, shucks-ed” their way to the front of the hall to receive their prizes and have their pictures taken with the mayor. Their co-volunteers enthusiastically applauded their individual accomplishments, but the humbleness in the room was palpable.

These were people who would have been perfectly happy to continue doing their good works in relative anonymity. They wanted no pats on the back or bouquets of flowers. They were embarrassed to have this kind of attention focused upon them. Not one of them went forward celebrating like a football player who had just scored the winning touchdown.  

It was as if they were simply members of a great, huge, enormous family that simply did what they recognized needed to be done so that the family would function better, healthier, and more spiritually rich with a simple helping hand from one another. Much like just cooking a meal, or doing the laundry, or singing a baby to sleep.

I was deeply moved.

The expressions “pay it forward” and “practice random acts of kindness” might seem like cliches, but their usage is rooted in the hearts of most Americans. Statistically, you are among that 62.5% whose hearts rule their actions.

When each day is done, and I’ve had it with Congress, and biased news sources, and rampant hypocrisy, and vicious, faceless postings on Facebook, I will lift up what I’ve learned and witnessed about my fellow volunteers, and work unsung among them.

3 Comments

  • Thanks, Lynn, for your continued sharing of what’s good about this great nation of ours. We’ve got a lot for which to be thankful not least of which is our spirit of giving selflessly.
    Regarding the volunteers’ reticence in being recognized, a mitzvah may signify a gift, but it’s believed the highest form of mitzvah is a gift given anonymously, without a need to be rewarded for the good deed.
    Such good Americans, these volunteers.

  • As usual, you have earned another “atta-girl” for a thoughtful, heartfelt article. There are many people who do acts of volunteerism without even realizing it. It might be something as small as recycling paper in the neighborhood school or church Paper Gator. Or baking cookies for your child’s class Bake Sale.

    In today’s society of single parenting, two parents working or holding down two low-paying jobs, even the little acts of volunteering should be applauded.

    My hat is off to all the volunteers!

Leave a Comment