• The importance of volunteerism
    April 30,2014

    April is National Volunteer Month, an opportunity to celebrate the important service volunteers provide for a variety of causes across the country. According to the Volunteering and Civic Work in America 2013 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than 34 percent of Vermonters volunteer in their communities, ranking us in the top 10 states. Residents of Vermont average 40 volunteer hours annually, and in total contributed 20.5 million hours of service in 2012 alone.

    One of the most impactful ways that people in Vermont volunteer is through AmeriCorps State and AmeriCorps VISTA programs across the state. These dedicated AmeriCorps volunteers receive only a small living stipend and commit at least a year of service toward helping a nonprofit site advance a cause that benefits the people in its community.

    I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member from 2009 through 2011 with the Vermont Youth Tomorrow program, based out of the Washington County Youth Service Bureau in Montpelier. At my host site, Mobius, I recruited adult volunteers to serve as mentors for young Vermonters (ages 5 through 22) through mentoring programs in Chittenden and Grand Isle counties.

    Largely because of my service, and the efforts of the VISTA members who served before and after me at Mobius and those who served with our partner programs, the total number of mentoring matches in the region grew from 350 in 2003 to more than 900 in 2012. I invite you to pause and think about that for a moment — a handful of volunteers behind the scenes helped mentoring programs in their community organize enough fellow citizens to close a gap of nearly 600 young people in need of mentors.

    Based on an abundance of national research, youth with mentors show improvements in school attendance, academic performance and pro-social behavior, and reductions in negative behavior such as substance abuse and physical violence.

    And for mentors, and volunteers in general, the benefits go both ways. In addition to feeling a sense of personal satisfaction and connection to their community, a recent Corporation for National and Community Service health study shows that people who volunteer are happier and more physically fit, and live longer. And though my situation is not universally applicable, I stand as an example of yet another proven benefit to volunteering: People who volunteer are 27 percent more likely to find a job after being out of work. I am fortunate enough to have found a full-time staff position with Mobius, and in our new role as Vermont’s state mentoring partnership, we continue to rely on the efforts of another AmeriCorps volunteer and the dedication of the roughly 2,500 mentors who volunteer their time through programs across the state.

    Mentoring is just one example of the many ways AmeriCorps members are serving communities throughout Vermont. There are currently 150 AmeriCorps State members and 70 AmeriCorps VISTA members, serving at nearly 80 nonprofit and government sites in Vermont. From expanding local food systems to supporting military families to improving affordable housing opportunities, these various members all play important roles in the collective effort to build stronger, more connected communities.

    Vermont has been in the news a lot recently for unfortunate reasons. The state faces major overarching issues, including an outbreak of opiate abuse and a variety of factors that contribute to systemic poverty. AmeriCorps members, and the nonprofits and volunteers they support, are needed now more than ever as the state looks to address these larger problems. VISTA members, specifically, are all placed with nonprofits and government agencies that work to alleviate poverty, and in many cases, on prevention efforts to help ensure that the next generation of Vermonters avoids falling victim to the current rash of substance abuse.

    We’re fortunate to have leaders in our state and local government that are addressing the situation from a big picture perspective and value the integral role that volunteers play in this process. Earlier this month, mayors John Hollar and Thomas Lauzon, of Montpelier and Barre, collaborated with SerVermont (Vermont’s Commission on National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps) and Gov. Shumlin to host AmeriCorps members and supervisors across the state for a recognition event at the State House. As a fellow Vermonter, I was proud of these legislators not just for taking the time out of their day to share speeches about volunteerism, but for personally thanking every AmeriCorps member in the room for their service. I came away from the event encouraged that despite the challenges our state faces, our citizens and government are working together to face them head-on as a united force.

    I urge you to reflect on the importance of volunteering. As you stop and think about some of the issues affecting your local community, are there opportunities for you to get involved? If you already are volunteering, have you ever talked to your friends and co-workers about your experiences? If you’re not giving back in some way, you may feel a sense of disconnection, in which case you are not alone. According to the 2013 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior survey, roughly half of our high school kids do not feel like they matter to adults in their community. If you want to help close that gap, and develop stronger ties between generations and among your fellow adults, consider getting involved. I promise you won’t come away disappointed, and your community will be better off because of your service.

    Benji Thurber is an AmeriCorps VISTA alumnus who worked in Washington County.

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