Orgs. that rely on volunteer help seeking more hands

·5 min read

Dec. 4—TRAVERSE CITY — Salvation Army Lieutenant Matt Winters said his organization has the fewest volunteers than it has had in recent years.

The Salvation Army's local branch has more than 3,000 volunteer hours left to be filled during the holiday season, he said.

For the past two months, the Salvation Army has cut one community meal from its weekly schedule because of a lack of volunteer service, Winters said, and it has fewer of its signature bell-ringers this year than last year.

The volunteers who have continued to help the Salvation Army throughout the pandemic have helped keep other programs afloat, Winters said, and aid in the creation of a new fresh food market, but more hands would help make their services "run smoother".

"We've seen, definitely, when we have the volunteers, the programs run smoother," Winters said. "We can definitely service people quicker. I think that's kind of been the biggest thing."

Some local organizations that rely heavily on volunteers to carry out their services are having trouble finding more hands to help out. Mainly because of the ongoing fear of contracting COVID-19, many seasoned volunteers — most who are retired seniors — have declined to return to their regular volunteering gigs.

As a result, some organizations have had to cut back on services.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Jubilee House, a day shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness run out of Grace Episcopal Church, closed its doors because of fears of COVID spreading in its small, confined space, said the Rev. Jim Perra.

Upon reopening in August, Jubilee House cut days of operation from five to three, in part because of a shortage of volunteers, Perra said.

"Volunteer shortages are a thing," Perra said.

Father Fred Foundation has faced a similar shortage of volunteer help after reopening its building in July, said executive director Candice Hamel.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Father Fred Foundation closed access to its physical facility. The organization still provided its services, said Hamel, but it needed fewer volunteers.

Hamel said when the building reopened in July and administrators were looking for more volunteers again, many of their regular volunteers did not return. They have seven paid staff and need about 100 volunteers to help complete services each week, she said. Father Fred now faces a weekly shortfall of about 20 to 30 volunteers.

"When people are disengaged for any long period of time they're less likely to return ... they've filled those shifts with other commitments in their lives," Hamel said.

COVID-19 also plays a major role in the volunteer shortage.

Perra said the fear of contracting COVID is the main reason why some of Jubilee House's regular volunteers have stayed away. Winters said the Salvation Army is seeing many of its volunteers have not returned because they are older and the ongoing pandemic makes volunteering still unsafe for them, Winters said.

The shortage might also be tied to burnout, Winters said.

"I think people are just starting to realize, through the pandemic, 'I just can't do as much as I was doing before,'" Winters said. "So, I think for us personally here at the Salvation Army ... we're starting to see maybe a demographic shift a little bit in the volunteers."

The Salvation Army is seeing more younger people volunteer than before, Winters said. Other organizations indicated they were experiencing a similar shift.

Mike McDonald, Safe Harbor board chair, his organization, an overnight emergency shelter, is not seeing any more difficulty recruiting volunteers this year than normal. He said Safe Harbor only needs 12 to 13 volunteers every 24 hours.

"Last year it was a little more difficult, because a lot of people weren't sure just exactly how to handle the pandemic," McDonald said. "I think people, now that most of our volunteers are vaccinated — we don't have that as an absolute requirement but I don't know of anyone who isn't — and most of them have gotten their booster shots, people are a little more confident."

McDonald said Safe Harbor lost some of its older volunteers who were uninterested in returning because of the pandemic. However, Safe Harbor recruited a lot of younger people last year, which has helped to offset the loss, he said.

Hamel said Father Fred Foundation is trying to "spark that interest" in volunteering among young people in the community.

"We try to find things that they can do together as a family ... what we're finding is it sort of cultivates that excitement around volunteering," Hamel said.

The Father Fred Foundation has started some recruiting processes, Hamel said.

It hired a new communications person this week, whom Hamel said she hopes can aid in that recruiting process.

"We're not in a situation where we're desperate, but it's not something you can let sit idle for very long," Hamel said.

More young people have started volunteering with Jubilee House as well, Perra said, which has helped the shelter make up for some of the shortages of volunteer help.

Basic Need Coalitions, a group of local organizations that serve the homeless population and share resources, has offered Perra help in finding more volunteers for Jubilee House.

He said he is hopeful they can get back up to their regular schedule, but the ever-changing nature of the pandemic makes it hard for anything to be sure.

"COVID makes us feel like Charlie Brown with the football with Lucy's always pulling it away," Perra said. "We'll make the best plan possible for what's going on in COVID, and then the next thing will happen and all of a sudden we have to make a whole new plan and we have to sort of have another conversation about what is and isn't safe."

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