| 2015 Q4 | story by JULIE DUNLAP | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
Imagine training for the job you do right now and spending your time working in the field, but instead of receiving a paycheck, vacation time and health insurance at the end of each month you simply receive smile of gratitude.
For an estimated one-fourth of the U.S. population and thousands of Lawrencians, this is all the reward they receive for a job well done, and that’s exactly how they like it.
“People volunteer for many reasons,” explains Lori Johns, Director of Volunteer Engagement with the Roger Hill Volunteer Center, a volunteer arm of the United Way of Douglas County, “they want to help, they believe in the mission of an organization, they are retired and want to give back, getting to know new people…” among others.
It has been said that a person will work eight hours per day for a good job, 12 hours per day for a good boss and 24 hours per day for a good cause. While Lawrence has no shortage of outstanding causes, identifying and recruiting people with the time, resources and passion to dedicate to volunteering for a non-profit organization is not always so simple.
“We currently (as of press time) have 152 volunteer opportunities available with 92 different organizations in Douglas County,” says Johns.
Regular needs vary from short-term clerical, landscaping and event help to long-term accounting, human resources, graphic design and legal assistance and can change daily. Johns turns to businesses, schools, online and in-print requests to recruit volunteers but finds the key to success is matching each individual’s skill set, passion and availability with an organization’s clearly-outlined need.
Diana Frederick, Executive Director of Douglas County CASA agrees.
“Our most successful volunteers have a variety of backgrounds,” Frederick prefaces, “but they all share a passion and talent for helping children.”
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) is a national organization with a chapter in Douglas County pairing carefully vetted and trained adults with children in the foster system to be a consistent source of stability and advocacy throughout a child’s time in foster care until a permanent home can be found. Without a CASA, foster kids are left with highly skilled but often overloaded social workers to identify and advocate for their needs.
Frederick adds that almost all CASA volunteers apply for the job fully aware of the duties and responsibilities of the position of advocate and undergo roughly 30 hours of training before being matched with a child. The passion the volunteers bring to the table coupled with the thorough training they receive result in a high retention rate for volunteers and as well as success for both the child in need and the adult advocating for the best possible outcome for each child.
Finding these capeless superheroes requires a team effort.
While Frederick is thrilled to have approximately 80 certified volunteers in Douglas County, just down the street at the county courthouse roughly more 60 children still await an advocate of their own.
To meet these needs, Frederick and her staff of eight paid employees recently teamed up with a group of MBA students studying the recruitment of volunteers at the University of Kansas and are in the process of structuring a committee dedicated solely to volunteer recruitment. Additionally, CASA relies on its board members and ambassadors to make personal connections with potential volunteers in an effort to recruit whether through organized events or in regular, daily conversation
Kim Polson, Data and Policy Coordinator at Health Care Access, Inc., a primary care and health services clinic for low- and no-income residents of Douglas County, knows the challenges and benefits of finding quality volunteers well after recruiting a wide variety of people during her recent tenure as Interim Executive Director to help serve and fund services for the 1,773 patients in their care last year.
Health Care Access, Inc. operates a full-time primary care clinic and year-round community outreach programs with a paid staff of just 13 full- and part-time employees and over 150 volunteer medical professionals, amounting to over $380,000 in donated services last year.
So where do Polson and her staff find people willing to dedicate over 7,100 hours of service each year?
“We are fortunate to have physicians, nurses and other medical professionals in Lawrence who understand the financial burden the cost of health care can place on individuals and families and are willing to lend their time and specialized skills to the community’s most vulnerable citizens,” she affirms, adding, “they understand and believe in the mission of Health Care Access.”
But a community filled with altruistic healthcare providers is not enough to make a clinic function, Polson is quick to point out. For every physician, physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, an RN or other trained support provider is needed to make the patient experience thorough and the clinic run smoothly. Additionally, office staff and other support staff contribute to the organization’s mission and success. Often volunteer clerical staff and even drywallers, electricians and other repair people donate their services, some in lieu of payment as former patients and others out of pure kindness and willingness to help.
“We are also very lucky to have the University of Kansas available to collaborate with on programs ranging from mental healthcare to wellness programming to fundraising efforts,” Polson adds.
Elliot Johnson, Marketing and Events Coordinator for Health Care Access, Inc. agrees. The University has been a key contributor of volunteers for the annual Kansas Half Marathon, the largest fundraising event benefitting Health Care Access. The 2015 race brought 1,550 runners from Lawrence and beyond from 20 different states to Lawrence for the weekend, many with family or friends supporting them.
Johnson recruits and coordinates 120 KU students, Lawrence residents and out-of-towners to help make a philanthropic run of this magnitude a success. While social media, advertising, community outreach and word-of-mouth are excellent sources to communicate the need for volunteers, getting people to actually show up can be a challenge. To reduce the number of no-shows and the resulting need to scramble for coverage when a volunteer doesn’t report for duty, Johnson kicks it old-school and phones each volunteer before the race to confirm.
“It’s easy for a volunteer to decide, on a chilly Sunday morning, to stay in bed and not spend the morning helping out with a race,” Johnson explains, “especially when the only contact with the volunteer coordinator has been via email. I like to call each volunteer on the phone, make a personal connection, thank them for helping and arrange to meet them at packet pick-up before the event.”
This isn’t always easy, but the effort is worth it.
“I may be hoarse by the end of the week from talking to over 100 volunteers,” Johnson laughs, “but I know on race day who is dedicated enough to show up and get the job done.”
“And when the Kansas Half Marathon runs smoothly and is an enjoyable experience for participants and spectators, the entire city of Lawrence benefits,” Polson adds.