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Rebuilding volunteer forces: Organizations that lost helpers during the pandemic invite them back

Robert Curry, 77, regularly volunteered for years before COVID-19 hit. The Deer Park resident recently has returned to helping in-person, including as a Bloomsday volunteer.

“I’m still not sure what kind of crowds I want to be in,” he said. “But a lot of people missed Bloomsday. It’s outdoors, and I’ll be wearing a mask.”

In December, he enjoyed being a Christmas Bureau volunteer. Habitat for Humanity is a constant. “I just think if everybody gave back a little bit, it would help a lot.”

Curry is among thousands of volunteers who fuel community services, but those ranks diminished during the pandemic. Now, many agencies are putting out the welcome sign.

In September, Phil Helean started a job as director for the Retired and Senior Volunteers Program of Spokane County. This past Thursday, RSVP held an open house for people to meet him, but mainly to invite volunteers back.

“Our numbers before the pandemic, if the information I got is right, was about 700 volunteers,” Helean said. “Right now, we’re at about 160 or so.”

Reasons had included COVID-19 concerns for seniors’ health and safety, and also, most agencies adopted pandemic policies for a time that paused visitors or went virtual.

That’s slowly changing. Helean said RSVP is starting to get more calls from seniors, and he’s met with about 25 organizations in the past two months with leaders describing a need for the RSVP members to return.

The open house message was “to get the word out that agencies want volunteers back. As people feel comfortable, we want to get them placed as soon as possible.”

In the past, RSVP members plugged into libraries, food banks, meal delivery, schools, medical appointment transportation and senior center administration.

Currently, Vitalant needs blood center drivers and hospitality help, Helean said. “Libraries are looking for reading buddies and mentors, and I’d include in that the school district (Spokane Public Schools).” Spokane Southside Senior Center is among places needing helpers.

He’s hearing that people are becoming more comfortable with in-person volunteering.

But its Project Warm-Up is a good match for some, he said. RSVP receives donated knitting and crochet materials for volunteers to make hats, scarves, gloves and blankets given once a year to about 30 agencies for people in need.

In April, Aging & Long Term Care of Eastern Washington put out a call because of needs for multiple volunteers to cover three services: Matter of Balance fall prevention classes, Check and Connect to call clients regularly and advisers to help people navigate Medicare.

“It’s been an interesting transition throughout the entire pandemic,” said Kari Stevens, ALTCEW Community Living Connections director.

“Our volunteers who have been around for a while and have done in-person before are very excited to do in-person again. That kind of fueled their fire, so to speak. A lot of the volunteers we’ve managed to recruit during the pandemic who’ve done nothing but remote work are a little more hesitant. They’re not unopposed to it. We’re having to make accommodations for both.”

Check and Connect has the most need. New volunteers can support the Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors program, which requires extensive training.

“SHIBA is already doing some in-person counseling once a week by appointment-only. We have several volunteers who prefer in-person counseling, and there are a lot of clientele who prefer in-person, as well. They come into our office and we have a socially distanced, safe meeting room.

“Our Matter of Balance used to be in-person, but we created a virtual program.” That might remain a hybrid model but with in-person classes as soon as possible, she said. “Check and Connect will be consistently remote.”

While there are still virtual volunteer roles, Helean at RSVP said many volunteers want to get out to help.

“I think what people are really looking for is the social and personal interaction,” he said. “They’re helping to meet a lot of different needs in the community. For seniors, it really gives them a chance to get out and be with people for the social, emotional and just the health benefits.

“I think the general feeling is people are ready to get back out and volunteer again. The need has increased, but the volunteers have decreased.”

Second Harvest has experienced a bit of an exception. The nonprofit has inched closer to pre-pandemic levels of volunteers to sort at its Spokane food distribution center. Many regular helpers steadily returned after 10 months of National Guard support ended in March 2021.

For 2021, Second Harvest in Spokane had 9,659 volunteers for shifts, down from 2019’s 14,487, but slightly skewed by the gradual return of helpers and the early Guard help.

Eric Williams, Second Harvest community partnership director, said the sites in Spokane and Pasco were “incredibly fortunate” to have National Guard members fill in during the height of the pandemic, but then volunteers came back.

“A big share of our volunteer force is retired folks, and particularly early on in the pandemic, some people believed to be most at risk were retired age,” Williams said. “When folks got their second vaccine, and with Johnson & Johnson maybe one vaccine, we got a lot of calls from volunteers saying, ‘Hey, I’m ready to come back.’

“We’re pretty close now to full force for volunteers. We never want to discourage more volunteers, but by and large, we’re doing a good job of having our volunteer slots filled. We’re always putting out something of a call for volunteers, but it’s not at all frantic.”

Conor Ellert, overseeing Second Harvest volunteer scheduling, said the Spokane site in 2019 ran about 15 shifts a week with 20 to 25 volunteers per shift. It’s now back up to about 15 shifts and close to 20 people per shift. “Day by day, we have increased.”

Second Harvest also has started to hear from big groups such as insurance offices or churches offering 50 to 60 people to serve. “We’re more able to do that now,” Williams said.

At Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels, the volunteer message is more of a success story, said Jeff Edwards, executive director. A majority of volunteers never backed off their schedules since early 2020.

“It wouldn’t be accurate to say our volunteers are coming back because they never left,” Edwards said. “I truly was amazed and humbled over what I saw from our volunteers during this time.

“Even volunteers who were seniors themselves continued to bear the risk to ensure our mission was accomplished. Now, we always need more volunteers and have a strong need for volunteers in the city of Spokane, but I’d say that is normal need and volunteer attrition.”

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