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Volunteers making a difference in lives


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Old National Bank market president Zac Nelson had a routine going.

For one hour every Thursday during the 2013-14 school year, Nelson would meet at Parkside Elementary with one of two second-grade boys.

It was part of the Book Buddies program, which works to improve reading skills of area second graders.

He would listen as his student read about tigers or antelopes, sometimes correcting students’ pronunciation, sometimes encouraging them to make it through the lesson, but mostly, just listening.

At the end of the session, his student would pick a sticker from the back of his reading book, to stick to a display card or to his clothes.

And at the end of the year, both students both had full sticker cards, and their reading skills had jumped seven levels — due, in part, to Nelson’s time spent with them.

Nelson is one of the many people giving time to nonprofits in Bartholomew County.

He’s a volunteer.

“Volunteerism is one small investment,” Nelson said. “You’re going to get repaid in ways you don’t even know.”

Perhaps it hearkens back to the civic-minded leadership of Columbus’ forefathers, but this is one volunteer-happy town.

About 5,000 new volunteers pass through the United Way of Bartholomew County’s Volunteer Action Center. Companies such as Cummins and Old National Bank bolster their employees’ volunteer efforts by giving them paid hours off to spend their time at assorted unpaid gigs.

“Bartholomew County has a culture of volunteering,” said Angie Huebel, director of the United Way of Bartholomew County’s Volunteer Action Center.

The community has room for the four types of volunteerism which, according to Huebel, are:

Skill based: this type of volunteering plays up the user’s skills, and may go along with the volunteer’s day job.

Episodic/one-and-done/manual: This might be one-time day jobs, yard work or organizational jobs.

Long-term: These jobs, such as United Way’s 211 program, require a longer commitment and often involve specific training.

Virtual: You might not ever see or meet this volunteer; they work long-distance on projects such as research. Huebel has one such volunteer who has since relocated to the United Kingdom.

Of course, volunteering is not simply an altruistic gesture on the part of some good people in Columbus.

Getting to know you

Volunteering is the key way for incoming residents to get to know the community and feel a part of it. It’s an opportunity for trailing spouses to become engaged in the community — and, if needed, to learn the language. For future students, volunteering can be a great way to figure out what you want to do — and what you don’t want to do — for a career.

Huebel, who comes from a long line of teachers, discovered that she didn’t like working with children.

For some, volunteering serves their persona.

Columbus Young Professionals member Heather Dunn spent two years in AmeriCorps, a full-time, service-based residential program in which men and women ages 18 to 24 are placed with nonprofits around the country for a full year.

Dunn said volunteering feeds her service-oriented nature.

“I like to help people in need,” she said. “I think volunteering is deeper and more dynamic than people realize. And you can’t beat helping someone in need.”

Get the skills to pay the bills

Volunteering is a chance to pad a resume, risk-free, said Ryanne Fenimore, a corporate responsibility coordinator at Cummins. Part of her job is directing people to volunteer opportunities at organizations such as McDowell Education Center and iGrad.

“The things that you can do with volunteering are really skill boosters and resume boosters,” Fenimore said. “I’ve seen these kids who are learning how to run or work for national organizations — and this is going to stand out like crazy — but it’s not risk. At the end of the day, you’re doing something good for your community.”

Chelsey Cooley, who has volunteered with the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), is a psychology major at IUPUC, and learned about CASA during her school year. She wants to work with at-risk youth when she finishes school, and she sees working with children now as a chance to made the community a better place in the future.

“These children are going to grow up and be members of our community,” she said.

Giving time to a cause can play up existing skills.

Katherine Johnston, user experience researcher and designer at Cummins, in May embarked on a project for the United Way of Bartholomew County. She, along with her manager Karen Falkner, will be suggesting revisions to the umbrella organization’s existing website, including optimizing the site’s volunteer and donation sections.

Johnston’s background is rich in nonprofit site design.

“For me, it’s this really good feeling of providing a service they might not otherwise have access to,” Johnston said.

Step outside the box

Volunteering time and effort is also a chance to step away from your usual duties and shake up your routine, Dunn said.

“You experience things, and you meet people you would never meet,” she said. “Volunteering can open up your life and get you out of your rut.”

Make a difference

For Nelson, working with Book Buddies was a great way to learn about kids and about parenting.

“I didn’t think, going in, that listening to a kid read for a half an hour would make a difference,” he said. “But it did. As a parent, I took that home.”

Perhaps most importantly, and at its most basic level, volunteering is a chance to make an impact.

“One of the greatest reasons to volunteer is to look into faces of the people you served and see the difference you made in their life,” Huebel said.

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