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Caring Connection: Agency matches volunteers with need

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Many people volunteer for a beloved organization out of the goodness of their hearts. But for others, it helps achieve a business or professional desire.

The common thread among all volunteers: “They all have some sort of unmet need within them,” said Angie Huebel, executive director of the United Way’s Volunteer Action Center, an organization that seeks to connect groups and individuals with the right volunteer opportunity.

While some volunteers just have a desire to serve, others may want to network, build their resume, make new friends or learn a new skill. Yet others are required to serve as a condition of their employment or graduation from school.

“It doesn’t matter what brought you to us,” Huebel said. “We’re just so happy to see you.”

The key, then, is finding the best way to fill those unmet needs.

Huebel and her staff have at their fingertips dozens of volunteer opportunities, most of which fall into one of the three categories the center has identified as areas of concern in Bartholomew County: education, health and financial stability.

Prospective volunteers are asked to fill out a registration form, which helps them identify areas of interest, time constraints, and special skills or qualifications that could be of use in a volunteer setting. VAC staff then identify organizations that may be a good fit for the individual.

“It really helps them identify how much time they have, and understand the opportunities here,” she said.

The VAC also can help would-be volunteers to find solutions to what they perceive as barriers to service. For instance, Huebel said that United Way’s 2-1-1 Holiday Assistance line can be done sitting down and is a good fit for volunteers with limited mobility. Those with children at home can be what Huebel calls “virtual volunteers,” and assemble packets and mailings for a number of organizations at home on their own time.

There are also a variety of family friendly opportunities, such as stuffing book bags for underprivileged kids during the summer. Little ones can help by opening packages of erasers and glue sticks, while older children can help with the actual assembly. Huebel said that volunteering as a family demonstrates to children the importance of giving back.

“Plus, it’s just fun,” Huebel said. “It sure beats sitting in front of the TV.”

Regardless of the motivation for wanting to take on a volunteer project, the experts seem to agree that the key to finding a volunteer position you want to stick with requires finding where your passion lies.

“First you have to figure out where you feel a nudge to get involved,” said Teresa Poole, who helped organize last weekend’s Feed My Starving Children event at Asbury United Methodist Church. More than 500 volunteers from all over Bartholomew County packed more than 125,000 meals —enough to feed 343 people in developing countries for a year.

Poole suggests asking friends and neighbors who volunteer for suggestions to help identify a need in the community.

“I learn about where there is a need, and then I figure out how to help there,” she said.

Kristen Munn, partnership manager for CAMEO, Columbus Young Professionals and Leadership Bartholomew County, has made a career out of identifying needs in the community. The Columbus native has been active in several organizations, including Advocates for Children and the People Trail Campaign, and helps coordinate volunteer efforts for CAMEO, CYP and LBC.

She said that the best way for a volunteer to find their fit is to gain exposure to a broad range of groups in need. For example, those enrolled in Leadership Bartholomew County travel to several different locations throughout the area during their yearlong course and hear how volunteer efforts impact each organization.

“People need to know why they are doing what they are doing,” Munn said.

Both Munn and Huebel said that feeling that connection with their placement is crucial for volunteers seeking a long-term placement.

“A lot of times a volunteer thinks they know what they want to do, but once they get in there, they don’t,” Huebel said. She suggested that a dissatisfied volunteer identify what it is they dislike about their placement and discuss possible solutions with their supervisor or contact the VAC for a different placement.

Above all, Huebel stressed the importance of knowing one’s physical, mental and time limits but also emphasized that there is no opportunity too small to make an impact.

“What if you spent the afternoon putting pamphlets from Turning Point (Domestic Violence Services) in children’s backpacks, and that pamphlet made it home to a mother who needed help,” she said.

“You may feel that all you did was stuff an envelope, but look at what a difference you made.”

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