By Amanda N. Wegner
Volunteering is not confined to a handful of “do- gooders.” Instead, it is a massive force that is helping to build a better world, a better Wisconsin and a better Walworth County. In fact, according to Corporation for National and Community Service, Wisconsin has the third-highest volunteer rate in the nation, with more than 35% of residents committing 169 million hours of service annually.
In Walworth County, a portion of those hours are contributed through Volunteer Connection Inc., a nonprofit charitable organization that matches and supports volunteers with local nonprofit organizations throughout Walworth County. Since its founding, the organization’s volunteers have provided over 352,000 hours of service.
Volunteer Connection was established in July 2010, explains Executive Director Patti O’Brien, when the federal funding for RSVP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, for Walworth County went away. “The organizations we serve are nonprofit organizations,” says O’Brien. “The people we serve are Walworth County low-income residents. Many are seniors and veterans that cannot find help elsewhere.”
Most importantly, Volunteer Connection serves volunteers. As the Volunteer Connection website states:“Our community needs volunteers to share their experience, time and talents with others. By volunteering, you are sharing a precious gift — yourself! Volunteer Connection exists to serve you, its volunteers. Through your volunteer activities, you are joining other caring individuals throughout Walworth County. Together we can work to build a better life for our community.”
THE VALUE OF GIVING
Volunteer Connection has served approximately 100 organizations in Walworth County. To put a monetary value on the organization’s impact, Wisconsin volunteers in 2018 were valued at $25.18 per hour, according to Independent Sector, an organization that serves the charitable community. “If you average $20 per hour for 352,000 hours, that comes out to over $7 million contributed to Walworth County,” says O’Brien. And in that time, over 600 volunteers have provided essential services to 50,000 residents at no charge.
Retired Lt. Col. Nathan M. Bond, the Walworth County Veterans Service Officer, relies on Volunteer Connection to help his office fulfill its mission of providing assistance, advice and advocacy for the veterans of Walworth County and their children, spouses and survivors.
“Without Volunteer Connection of Walworth County, it would be extremely difficult to fulfill my agency’s mission. Rides to and from the VA and civilian facility medical appointments, small household — and sometimes not so small — maintenance jobs, and all sorts of other situations where a helping hand is required are provided by Patti O’Brien and her crew of volunteers,” says Bond. “Even the veteran service organizations like the VFW and the American Legion depend on Patti to connect them with community projects and members of the community where they can lend a hand.”
Adds Jean Raidl, president of the Elkhorn Food Pantry: “Volunteer Connection Inc. is very valuable to our Walworth County community. [Patti] helps the Elkhorn Food Pantry in many ways. She supplies volunteers to us and helps us whenever we need an extra hand.”
By connecting with so many organizations, Volunteer Connection offers a variety of options for volunteers of all ages, skills and abilities. “We want the volunteer to take pride in their experience and have fun, so we leave it up to them as to what time they have available and what they want to do,” says O’Brien. “Some volunteers want to do something one day each week on the same day at the same time. Some want to only help with Toys for Tots, which would be a few weeks [each year] of picking up toys, organizing them and handing them out.”
While some organizations reach out to Volunteer Connection for assistance, Volunteer Connection also contacts organizations if it hears they are in need of volunteers.
In addition to providing volunteers for organizations, Volunteer Connection offers other opportunities as well. For instance, the organization has two groups of TeleCare volunteers that make daily wellness telephone calls to individuals in need to make sure they are OK.
The organization also runs a Quality of Life program that O’Brien and her board are proud of, as it has a direct impact on low- income seniors, veterans and disabled Walworth County residents. Some examples of recent projects completed through the Quality of Life program include replacing a storm door for an elderly veteran in the winter; moving mailboxes for residents who had become disabled; installing insulation, drywall after pipes burst in a verteran’s home; assembling baby furniture for a family whose apartment had a fire; and more. Many different talents are needed for Volunteer Connection’s Quality of Life program. Referrals for this program, says O’Brien, come from nonprofit and governmental agencies when people need extra help in their homes.
The organization also organizes the annual Day of Action, which is scheduled for September 14 this year. With the assistance of Elkhorn Area High School sports teams and coaches, volunteers complete projects around the county. For instance, some healthcare facilities will have a ‘spa day,’ where residents receive hand and arm massages, get their nails painted, hair combed and play games like bingo. Some volunteers will help tidy up the inside and outside of organizations, helping with chores such as landscaping, painting and more.
“We do as much as we can, depending on the number of volunteers that we get signed up,” says O’Brien.
Time, talent and experience are important things we all have that we can share with our neighbors. “I guarantee volunteers will discover that while community service improves the lives and the community around them, the greatest reward is the enrichment and new meaning it will bring them, how good it will make them feel that they’re helping people and organizations that need them,” says O’Brien.
“Research has proven that volunteers enjoy better health and make new friends when they stay active and involved in their communities,” she adds.
To volunteer with Volunteer Connection, an application is required, which can be found on the organization’s website. In turn for volunteering with Volunteer Connection, the organization provides accident, liability and excess automobile insurance while volunteering and traveling to and from a volunteer assignment at no cost. (Some limitations apply.)
Volunteers also get individual preference on assignments. “It is important that you are comfortable with your volunteer assignment,” says O’Brien. “We are flexible and can make changes to accommodate your needs as a volunteer.”
Volunteers are required to submit their hours as proof of their service and to help assess Volunteer Connection’s performance.
In addition to time, talent and experience, Volunteer Connection accepts tax-deductible financial gifts to support its work, which is vital to many in Walworth County. “We care about them all — the individual as well as the organizations,” says O’Brien of the value Volunteer Connection Inc. brings to the community. “If we don’t do it, who will?”