Kevin Lindberg has one of the world’s toughest jobs—and one of the most uplifting.
Southwest Florida chapter of the American Red Cross, Lindberg is often on the front lines after devastating floods, fires and hurricanes. But after Hurricane Katrina destroyed enormous stretches of the Gulf Coast last summer, Lindberg and his staff received thousands of calls from volunteers wanting to fly to New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama to help. Senior citizens told him they were willing to stay for three weeks without power in 95-degree weather; busy employees told him they would use their vacation time to volunteer for Katrina victims. Volunteers sped through training, deployed for three weeks, came home and asked to be sent right back out to the front lines. One young couple got married after they met while volunteering for Lindberg’s Red Cross chapter.
“People are interested in volunteering, more so now then ever,” says Lindberg, whose 10-person paid staff manages a fleet of 1,000-plus volunteers, three-quarters of whom signed on over the past two years.
Indeed, many Sarasota institutions would be unable to function without their loyal corps of volunteers, who flock in droves to weed the flower beds at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, rescue sea turtles at Mote Marine Laboratory, transport patients to surgery at Sarasota Memorial Hospital and wield hammers at Habitat for Humanity homebuilding sites.
“We couldn’t open the doors without them,” says Charles Butterfield, volunteer coordinator at Selby Gardens. “We’re a nonprofit, non-state organization with a limited budget. Volunteers are critical.”
Nationally, the growth of volunteerism peaked about four years ago and has since remained relatively stable, says Jason Willet, spokesman for the San Francisco-based nonprofit VolunteerMatch.org, a service that has matched 3 million volunteers with organizations since 1998.
“Whenever there’s a disaster, there’s a tremendous spike in volunteers,” says Willet. “Since 1998, unfortunately we’ve had 9/11, the tsunami, the hurricanes. Each time, we saw a massive increase in the number of people finding ways [to help] on VolunteerMatch.org. Even after that increase, which would last several weeks to a month, we wouldn’t see numbers return to normal levels until after six to eight months. So not only are people getting inspired to volunteer right away, they are inspired to stay with [the organizations].”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 65.4 million Americans volunteered at least once between September 2004 and September 2005, or about 28.8 percent of the population, the same as in the two prior years. Women were more likely to volunteer than men (though men logged more hours volunteering), and the highest rates of volunteerism were among those in the 35-to-44 age group, followed by the 45-to-54 age group. Whites were more likely to volunteer than other ethnic groups, and those who are married were more likely to volunteer than those who are not. Those with children 18 and under were more likely to volunteer than those without, and the employed—especially part-time—had higher rates of volunteerism than the unemployed. More educated people and those with children were more likely to volunteer at more than one organization.
The BLS data stated that the lowest rates of volunteerism were among 20-somethings and those over 65. That’s not the case here in Sarasota, however, where a large portion of the volunteer force tends to be drawn from a dedicated body of snowbirds or retirees who have skills they want to keep honed and the time to give back to their community.
“They want to keep making a difference, they want to keep making contributions,” says Andrea Davis, director of volunteers/intern resources, who oversees about 1,200 volunteers at Mote Aquarium. “Some take up positions of responsibility because they did that in their former life.”
Take 86-year-old Ann Esworthy. A Navy wife who had moved 28 times in 28 years, Esworthy and her husband came to Sarasota County 35 years ago to take care of a 13-acre property their son-in-law, who was abroad on business, had inherited from his grandparents. The Esworthys knew nothing about horticulture, and decided to volunteer at then-fledgling Selby Gardens to learn what they needed. Once there, Ann put her past experience as a Washington, D.C., tour guide to use, establishing a tour-guide program at Selby as well as other hallmarks of the organization, such as the Orchid Ball.
“I’ve been involved with the gardens from the beginning,” says Esworthy. “If I do something, I’m committed to it. That’s my nature.”
Indeed, the BLS study states that older volunteers had a higher median of hours spent volunteering—96 hours—than any other group. That’s not hard to believe when looking at Phyllis Siskel’s schedule. A recipient of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s 2006 Unsung Hero award, Siskel spends almost every day volunteering at one of her five pet causes: All Faiths Food Bank, Southeastern Guide Dogs, the Humane Society, Animal Rescue Coalition and Children’s Haven and Adult Community Services. She does everything from folding laundry, working in the puppy nursery and taking photographs at special events to sorting out food donations.
“My husband and I were both involved, and he passed away a year ago,” says Siskel, 62, who also runs marathons (eight since 1987), cares for her 95-year-old mother and takes classes at the Adult and Community Senior Education Center. “He told me to stay kind and stay good and keep up my enthusiasm. I thrive on it. It just makes me feel good to be able to help out.”
Esworthy says she worries about whether future generations will be as committed. But Willet of VolunteerMatch.org predicts a rise in volunteerism. Why? A tidal wave of boomers will be retiring in the coming years.
“We expect a lot more volunteers as boomers retire,” says Willet. “There’s a lot of activity around trying to make sure that nonprofits are ready to handle the influx over the next couple of decades. That’s wonderful news; volunteer needs never diminish.”
Willet says skills-based volunteering is one way to capture the vast pool of potential white-collar boomer retirees. Many nonprofits would love to have a retired attorney come in and do some pro bono work writing contracts, for example, or retired journalists drafting press releases.
And contrary to the surly, spoiled-teenager stereotype, plenty of young people do volunteer. A joint study between the Corporation for National and Community Service, the U.S. Census Bureau and Independent Sector found that 15.5 million teenagers volunteered more than 1.3 billion hours of service in 2004. Many do so as part of thriving youth volunteer programs such as the one at the Southwest Florida Chapter of the American Red Cross, which grew from zero to 130 participants over three years. In Sarasota County, says Tom Giles of the Friendship Volunteer Center, 1,400 high school students are signed up to volunteer around the county.
Young people under 25 may be reacting to recent pushes from schools and universities to encourage or even mandate volunteerism, says David Clemmons, director of the nonprofit VolunTourism.org, an organization that helps educate consumers, tourism professionals and nonprofits about the concept of traveling to volunteer, or volunteering while traveling. That’s one creative way to volunteer that is attracting not just youth, but also the over-50 market, says Clemmons. Two decades ago, just a handful of nonprofits offered a “voluntourism” experience. Today, says Clemmons, that’s grown to more than 1,000 worldwide. For-profit tourism companies have also started offering volunteer experiences as a “value-added” vacation component, he says.
“Since travel is a privilege of the more well-to-do demographic, they are also more likely to have been exposed to some sort of volunteering,” says Clemmons. “This offers something strictly volunteering doesn’t offer: exposure to a destination, culture, a different way of being. It’s making the world your back yard.”
Kevin Lindberg of the Red Cross says that there’s also plenty to do here in our own back yard. Although it was the dramatic hurricane seasons of recent years that attracted the bulk of his new recruits, the training he gives them—funded partly by a Community Foundation grant—prepares them for more day-to-day local disasters, from house fires to summer floods.
Says Lindberg, “People who volunteer understand that if they were in need, someone would be there to help them.”