A Day of Caring: Volunteers share their skills to help the community

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Volunteers sort through items and stock shelves at San Souci for the United Way’s Day of Caring in Columbus, Ind., Friday, May 20, 2022.

ALWAYS held on a Friday in mid-May, the United Way of Bartholomew County’s Day of Caring attracted a dozen different companies helping the community.

When inaugurated in 2015, the first Day of Caring drew about 1,700 participants from companies throughout Bartholomew County who tackled about 30 projects.

This year, about 265 volunteers had been recruited to work 40 shifts to complete 12 projects, United Way Communications Manager Magen Pillar said. It’s a level of participation that has remained fairly steady the past few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Any attempt to raise participation levels at this time creates a two-fold problem, Volunteer Action Center director Alicia Monroe said.

“There are still some nonprofits not back to normal that don’t have staff to do things like this or oversee volunteers,” Monroe said. “In addition, there remains a number of corporate sponsors that are still not allowing their employees to volunteer.”

However, the development of an online volunteer system has helped recruit several individual volunteers, she said. And the overall objective of Day of Caring, which involves matching a volunteer’s passions and skills with projects that benefit the less fortunate, has not changed.

Ramp it up

On Friday, a group of employees from Forvia (formerly Faurecia) built their ninth wheelchair ramp in four years for a disabled woman residing in a mobile home in Candlelight Village.

In 2018, Faurecia volunteers built a wheelchair ramp for twin boys who suffered from cerebral palsy, team member Jim Crouse said. At least one child was totally dependent on his parents or siblings to get him in or out of his residence, he said.

“When he came home from school, we saw the absolute elation and happiness on his face when he realized he would finally be able to get in and out by himself,” Crouse said. “When we saw that, we thought that maybe building wheelchair ramps is what we should be doing every year for our Day of Caring or Day of Service projects.”

Crouse put in a funding request to what was then the Faurecia Foundation. His team was elated when they learned that their request for financial assistance to build wheelchair ramps was the only project the French foundation chose to fund in the United States that year, he said

Using a funding formula provided by the United Way, the ramp would have cost $2,250 if it was built by paid professionals. But Forvia employees furnished free manpower, as well as $1,400 worth of materials.

Greening the thumbs

Several projects were being carried out inside and outside of the Foundation for Youth. About 20 volunteers largely made up of employees from Milestone Contractors were adding compost, as well as cleaning and weeding, a large outside area where gardening classes for kids begin Monday.

“We had a lot of problems with rabbits and insects eating up the vegetables last year,” Master Gardener Jan Bruner said. “This year, the volunteers are building frames over the beds and using netting to cover them.”

If the FFY kids enrolled in gardening classes were to do all the preparation work themselves, half the planting season would be gone before the seeds could be planted in the ground, Bruner said.

As she watched the volunteers in the gardening area, the master gardener said she saw something most people wouldn’t notice.

“This creates a special bonding time where co-workers get to talk about personal things they aren’t comfortable discussing while at work,” Bruner said.

In addition, the annual Day of Caring has evolved to a level that focuses on what United Way of Bartholomew County president Mark Stewart calls “the human connection.”

“The volunteers learn an appreciation for folks who have had different upbringings than they’ve experienced,” Stewart said in an earlier interview. “It also allows them to see the impact they are having when working side-by-side with nonprofit employees.”

While some companies routinely say they want to give back to the community, Milestone Director of Estimating Jon Bolting indicated that phrase has special significance to his employer.

“We realize that our construction zones can be a bit of a hindrance to folks when they are on the road,” Bolting said. “We also know that a lot of the work we do comes from local tax dollars. So we want to give something back to the community for their patience and funding.”

One day before the Day of Caring, Milestone employees could be found Thursday grilling hot dogs at Rockcreek Elementary School to help the students celebrate the end of another school year, Bolting said.

Inside the Foundation For Youth, employees from Cummins Inc. and Toyota Material Handling were helping do an annual spring cleaning. Several items accumulated over time were sorted, cleaned, organized and moved in preparation for a garage sale fundraiser, FFY associate director Andrew Young said. A third crew in western Bartholomew County helped to get Columbus Youth Camp ready for its busy season, he said.

If only paid staff were doing the spring cleaning inside the foundation, the work would take four times longer to complete, Young said. He calculated that the Cummins and Toyota volunteers saved the agency at least $2,400 — and that doesn’t include all the garden and Youth Camp projects, Young said.

Complete overhaul

At the San Souci thrift store, most of the eight volunteers in the morning came from Centra Credit Union and Cummins, Inc., operations supervisor Brad Woodcock said. They, along with about 10 afternoon volunteers, took on the large task of restocking all shelves, so San Souci can offer new and regular customers entirely different items.

“Whenever we do a purge and get rid of old items, it takes a lot of manpower to restock shelving,” Woodcock said. “Once that is done, the volunteers go to the back of the building, sort through donations and prepare them for display.”

Purges are usually done twice a year, according to Lyndsey Kendrick, incoming president of the San Souci Board of Directors and assistant vice-president at Centra Credit Union.

Once completed, the purge gives the thrift store a chance to sell tickets to a VIP event where participants get to choose from the “best of the best” items before those items are made available to the general public, Kendrick said.

Over the years, many residents have said they prefer to donate and shop at San Souci because all funds raised through donations stay in the community.

While Kendrick agrees, she said she believes local residents also appreciate the organization’s employee development program, where those without jobs have their confidence built up and skills developed, so they can eventually become self-reliant.