Aid for helping hands

Voluntarism: Center takes prospective volunteers' interests and time constraints into consideration to find a suitable match.

March 18, 2002|By Megan Watzin | Megan Watzin,SUN STAFF

Conventional wisdom has it that self-absorbed Americans are less and less inclined to volunteer. But the truth, voluntarism experts say, is that most people only need to be asked.

"Consider yourself asked," Michelle Rubenstein, director of the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County, told a group of volunteer recruits one recent evening at the Borders bookstore in Columbia Crossing.

More than 30 volunteer candidates were crowded into a nook at the bookstore looking for ways to squeeze volunteering into their busy lives.

The briefing session is one innovation the Howard center, which opened in November, is using to help potential volunteers find ways to get involved.

"We're here to connect people with different opportunities that you might have trouble finding on your own," Rubenstein said.

After listening to a general introduction from Rubenstein, the would-be volunteers were provided with forms they could use to help advisers match the time they have available, their skills and interests with an appropriate volunteering opportunity.

When a potential match is spotted, the center contacts a prospective volunteer by phone or e-mail. Making the match fit constraints on volunteers' schedules can be difficult.

Debi Epstein of Columbia was attending the evening session to find service that she could do on her own, and projects in which she could involve her children, ages 6, 8 and 10. "Time is limited, and to have someone organize this for us saves time that can be spent actually volunteering," she said of the volunteer center.

To deal with the time challenge, the Howard center has organized a program called WeCan Team, one-time-only weekend and evening projects to make finding service easier for those who work or attend school weekdays.

Such programs are important because of the growing demand for volunteers across the state.

A 1997 survey of nonprofit leaders by the Maryland Association of Non-profit Organizations found that 70 percent rely on volunteers to carry out their missions, and 63 percent have trouble finding the volunteers they need.

Representatives from Howard County Meals on Wheels, the Howard County Conservancy and the Columbia Archives were pitching their missions at the bookstore briefing.

"I've been so happy to work in Howard County because the volunteers are fantastic," Christine Crandall, a representative from the Meals on Wheels program, told the crowd. The organization's new branch in western Howard County is "desperately looking for volunteers," she added.

Meals on Wheels is one of 40 nonprofit organizations using the Howard volunteer center to help recruit new workers.

Rubenstein said the center, one of nine such organizations in Maryland, is hoping to work with many more.

Call to action

Volunteer centers across the state say they've gotten a boost since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 and President Bush's call for increased voluntarism in this year's State of the Union address.

Since the end of September, the Volunteer Center of Anne Arundel County has more than tripled its number of volunteers. United Way of Calvert County and the Volunteer Center of Prince George's County also have seen increased interest, especially among young people.

Montgomery County has experienced a surge of seniors calling, interested in community preparedness projects, and many businesses that want to donate time.

`A great thing'

Although Howard County's center is too young to gauge whether recent world events and Bush's encouragement have made a difference, Rubenstein says, "The feedback I've been getting from people who call is that this is a great thing. Howard County has never had a countywide center like this one."

Center expansion

The Volunteer Center Serving Howard County grew from the Columbia Volunteer Corps, expanding that Columbia-focused effort across the county.

About 500 volunteer centers operate in the nation. The location of the nearest center is available by calling 800-VOLUNTEER.

Brian Allio of Columbia was one caller. After trying for years to find volunteer opportunities, he found that most organizations he contacted independently were looking for full-time help, which he could not provide.

After hearing an advertisement for 800-VOLUNTEER on National Public Radio one afternoon, he called the number and was referred to The Volunteer Center Serving Howard County.

`The right direction'

Allio compared the center with a guidance counselor. "I think this is helpful because trying to call around yourself doesn't always get results. This is kind of like having a guidance counselor to push you toward the right direction."

Rubenstein plans to travel across the county with a "volunteer road show."

She plans to hold orientations at Miller library branch in Ellicott City from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. April 13 and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. May 16. A similar event is planned in Elkridge.

Those interested in attending should call the center at 410-715- 3172.

Volunteers sought

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