Considering taking the plunge into volunteering? Take a peek online and you’ll find a pool of over 3 million possibilities. We’ve collected tips from seasoned volunteers and those who depend on them about how to navigate the choices.
FIND YOUR PASSION
Family ties to the military fueled the volunteer spirit for Sharon Nicastro, a local instructor for volunteer services and volunteer partner of the Regional Director for Services to the Armed Forces.
“Look for reputable organizations that support a cause that you feel strongly about,” she says. The American Red Cross Volunteer Connection (redcross.org) is a good place to start.
Rocky River resident Kathy Berkshire, whose business card proclaims “Professional Volunteer,” agrees.
“You need to think what you are passionate about, most importantly — something that has touched you,” says Berkshire, who lists the Rocky River Chamber of Commerce, Lakewood Rotary, the Ohio State University Alumni Association and Hospice of the Western Reserve on her resume.
“The more I did in the community, the more I found organizations I was passionate about,” she adds.
After you’ve found an organization you believe in, you still may have to find your niche. But that’s not a problem, says Alice Schwallie, manager of volunteer programs at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
“We rely on volunteers throughout the museum in every department across the board,” she says. There, opportunities include everything from clerical work to interacting with guests and doing research. “We work with each volunteer to determine what he or she wants to do. About 85 percent of the time when they come in, they target a certain area.”
Akron native and board member of West Shore CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) Dennis Kucler adds, “Our charitable, cultural, civic and entertainment organizations cannot afford to exist in today’s world without the commitment and energies of volunteers.”
TIME AND TRAINING
So you’ve found a cause you support. Now, how much can you give? Obligation varies as much as the jobs themselves, from one-time projects to work-like positions requiring training and time commitment.
“We have an allocation process, a background check and an online compliance course,” Schwallie says. Depending on the position, training can take from five hours to one month to complete. While there are no hourly requirements, she suggests volunteers come in twice a month.
Also, consider the commute. How far are you willing to drive? Veteran volunteers advise keeping track of your mileage for tax purposes.
While volunteering is often a chance to learn something new, you can share your professional expertise with organizations like College Now of Greater Cleveland. This online platform guides communication between a college student and a mentor during a four-year commitment. Messages are exchanged twice monthly, and in-person meetings are held three times a year. Contact Madeline Rife at [email protected] to learn more.
“Start small,” Berkshire advises. “You could end up doing more depending on your skills and their needs.”
How much is too much?
“I’m finally learning to say no. It was difficult at first,” says Berkshire, who now travels more, visiting family across the country. “If you’re feeling anxious and stressing about not having enough time, then it may be time to slow down”
MEET NEW FRIENDS
“By volunteering, you can provide valuable services, learn new skills, expand social and professional networks, and improve your physical and mental health,” Nicastro says.
Lyndhurst resident Stuart Pearl, who along with his wife Jeanne has logged hundreds of hours at Cleveland Metroparks, Holden Arboretum and numerous other venues around the area adds, “It’s something that’s social; it keeps you energized and engaged. Volunteering is the fountain of youth.”
Sue Botos is a freelance writer from Rocky River who began volunteering as a candy striper at Lakewood Hospital, progressed through PTAs and now helps out at the Cleveland Metroparks and Zoo.