FALMOUTH — It’s National Volunteer Week. Traditionally, it is celebrated the last week in April, but this year the powers-that-be changed the celebration so as not to conflict with Easter and Passover. At first, this made no sense, but an afterthought enlightened me to the fact that the change allows the country to truly commemorate the gifts made by Americans to their communities.

Maine is one state where volunteerism occupies a front row in the workings of its citizens. In fact, it may be safe to say that there are very few activities in Maine that are not, in some way, affected or advanced by volunteers.

Groups sponsoring public suppers to help neighbors through bad times are volunteering. People who serve on civic and nonprofit boards are volunteers as well, as are the church members who work with local food banks and shelters. These people may not see themselves as anything but caring neighbors. They are that, but they are more than that. They are volunteers.

The other day I was talking with another volunteer about the good feeling we had as a result of the work we were doing. She ended the conversation by saying, “I am just a volunteer!”

No one is “just a volunteer!”

This provoked some serious thinking on my part. I realized that there are two issues here: The first is that organizations do not always value their volunteers; the second is that volunteers do not always realize how important their service is to the organization.

Organizations using volunteers to advance their causes must respect the people they recruit. They must understand that volunteers make them viable within the community. Volunteers are a priceless resource. They cannot create an atmosphere of “just a volunteer.” This applies to organizational staff as well as administration.

Recently, I was refused a volunteer position in a health care facility because I had previously advocated for a patient. The recorded comment mentioned “issues regarding patient advocate versus volunteer …” What that says is that volunteers are not an integral part of that system. The statement reveals that at that particular facility, volunteers are “just volunteers.”

Another situation also seems to be cropping up: the use of volunteers to replace paid personnel. In more than 40 years as a volunteer, volunteer manager and project developer, I have never knowingly used a volunteer to replace paid personnel. In my world, that is not the way it should work. However, volunteer positions can be created that support an organization and lead to the creation of paid positions. And volunteers often pave the way for stability, growth and credibility for the organization and its position within the community.

Then there is the thought that volunteers can not be depended upon. There is some validity to this statement, in part because volunteers do not understand their importance within an organization. Groups that depend on volunteers need to know that the volunteer is going to be there when needed. My husband, for years, treated his volunteer position as an important part of his schedule. Jim saw himself as an integral part of the organization. He signed up, he was there and he delivered the service expected of him.

Organizations and the volunteers that serve them need to understand their mutual responsibilities. Organizations must lay out their needs, set the rules and provide the appropriate training to allow people to function within them. Administration and staff must establish an atmosphere of respect for those who give their time.

Correspondingly, those who volunteer must make the same commitment that paid personnel make. Volunteers also need to be aware of the mission and purpose of the organization they serve.

Each year, the country honors volunteers with a week set aside to reflect on the work they do, the contributions they make and the impact they have on their communities. We only need to experience a day where there are no volunteers to understand the strength and substance they give to each of us.

Mitch Albom, in his book “Tuesdays With Morrie,” quotes the “Coach”:

“Remember what I said about finding a meaningful life … Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning … You notice there’s nothing in there about a salary.”

Volunteers have the heart of Morrie Schwartz; they devote themselves to their community in ways we can never truly understand. Maybe this country should consider devoting more than a week to honor volunteers. They affect every day of every life. We need to thank them each day.

 

– Special to The Press Herald