Since the COVID pandemic began, the number of people volunteering with some area agencies and organizations has fallen off. But the need for their help has not waned.
An informal survey of several nonprofits that rely on volunteers shows that most have less help than they did one or two years ago. Their spokesmen attribute that to people being less likely to leave their homes and possibly risk getting the virus; contracting the virus themselves; or caring for others during the outbreak, among other reasons.
Many groups have adjusted their services and operations to continue serving the public with less manpower, and they all look forward to the day when people will return to volunteer service.
Following is a brief look at a short sample of the numerous area agencies that depend on volunteers. Anyone interested in helping a specific group should contact that organization.
Suzie Helbert, deputy director of public safety for Henry County, has one word for anyone considering volunteering with local fire and/or rescue squads: Help!
Whether they want to volunteer at a local squad or pursue a career (paid) position with Henry County Public Safety, their manpower is needed, Helbert said.
Currently, Henry County has about 34 career staffers; it can use 40 or more, she said. Some people left due the COVID pandemic, becoming sick themselves or having family members who became ill and needed help, Helbert said.
Volunteers and career staff work in tandem, she said. And some people who started in volunteer positions have grown into career slots, she added.
“It is a true combination. We depend on both,” Helbert said. Most if not all of them also work two jobs, such as full-time with Martinsville and part-time with Henry County agencies or vice versa.
EMT and firefighter training each takes about 200 hours or more, and paramedic training takes more than two years, according to Helbert.
To encourage and train help, Helbert said a recruiting academy is being held locally for the first time. The academy, in partnership with Franklin County, began in November and has a full roster of 11 students who attend training from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. When they finish in February and pass their state and national exams, they will be ready to be EMTs (emergency medical technicians) and firefighters.
If the recruiting academy model program continues, Helbert said she expects other area agencies will take part.
“It’s widely seen as a good idea,” she said. “It’s one tool but a huge step to a solution” of boosting manpower.
To find personnel in the past, Helbert said she took part in job fairs, contacted colleges and churches and held classes, although COVID halted that for a while. She also encourages class instructors to bring their students into the squad buildings to spark their interest in serving.
“Everybody can contribute something,” she added.
Martinsville Fire Chief Ted Anderson agreed. The city department has both career and volunteer personnel. About 10 volunteers help support the department, with fundraising and performing other roles suited to their certification.
Volunteers can start as young as age 16. “Getting started early sets up a nice career path” which can lead to work as a firefighter or paramedic, Anderson said. Even if a person does not go that route, he added that service “looks great on a resume” and costs little or nothing.
Anyone interested in volunteering or a career position should contact Henry County Public Safety or any area fire or rescue squad station, Helbert said. Those interested in volunteering with the Martinsville department should call (276) 403-5325.
HENRY COUNTY FOOD PANTRY
The Henry County Food Pantry in Bassett is helping more people with fewer volunteers than it had before the pandemic.
The pantry has about 25 volunteers, which is about five fewer than it had before the COVID spread. Yet it is assembling and distributing 15 percent more food boxes than it did as recently as last fall, as well as providing other services, according to Site Director Sharon Mills.
The increase in the need for food boxes can be attributed to government subsidies expiring, people in quarantines or unable to work because their children are quarantined and other factors, she said.
The pantry distributes food weekly; in the past it was done monthly, she said. Also, the pantry gets referrals for help, such as for people who have lost their homes to fires.
“We were absolutely affected by COVID,” Mills said, explaining that few of the pantry’s previous 30 volunteers have remained.
The average age of the pantry’s volunteers is 75, and many felt uncomfortable leaving their homes as the pandemic took hold, she said. When they finally did begin to get out, the pandemic started to worsen, she added.
Mills said most volunteers are recruited by word of mouth or Facebook postings. She also calls those who helped in the past to see if they want to return, and private groups, such as employees, church groups and clubs, sometimes lend a hand.
The pantry also welcomes help from people with community service hours to fill. Mills said some of those people have found it to be a blessing to help their neighbors.
Almost all of them “are shocked at the needs in the community,” she added.
The volunteers spend about six hours a week packing 1,500 to 2,000 food boxes every month. The food comes from Feeding Southwest Virginia, donations from area organizations and companies, and special purchases. The pantry also boxes food for groups such as the Salvation Army, churches, assisted living centers and others, Mills said, adding that has become a central location for such groups and services.
However, she expects the quantity of food the pantry receives to decrease as the federal government returns distributions to prepandemic levels. Mills said the pantry will raise more funds to buy food and offset that drop.
Mills said the volunteers are efficient at boxing food, but recently some have been diverted to help sort clothing donations. Some of the clothes and related items came to the pantry when the Salvation Army closed its thrift store, Mills said.
“Now we’re working more as a partnership in the community,” providing one-stop help for people in need, she said.
The pantry’s clothes closet occupies 4,000 square feet of the former Bassett Printing building, called “Riverwalk.” The food pantry occupies 5,000 square feet of the building.
At this time, the closet has a good supply of women’s clothes but needs children’s and men’s items, coats, blankets and housewares, Mills said.
Anyone interested in volunteering can call the pantry at (276) 629-1369.
Using industry-standard figures to calculate the monetary value of volunteers to Grace Network, the sum comes to $2,055 a week or nearly $107,000 a year.
But to Grace Executive Director Tracy Hinchcliff, the volunteers are “priceless,” and that is an understatement, she said.
Grace Network, on Liberty Street, helps area residents at risk of losing their housing or utilities or not feeding their families because of a crisis.
Unlike paid employees, Hinchcliff said volunteers work from their heart and because they want to help the community. The $107,000 is a valid assessment of their value to Grace, she said, but “the value of the heart is what matters to me.”
Grace could not survive without its volunteers. It operates five 3 1/2-hour shifts every week. At full staff, each shift has 12 volunteers, most of whom help once a week. Hinchcliff and a part-time bookkeeper are the only paid staff.
Before COVID hit, Grace had a roster of 150 volunteers. Now, it has 115 active volunteers, Hinchcliff said.
“COVID probably accounted for the biggest chunk of volunteers” who did not return after the agency closed briefly at the height of the pandemic, she said. Others left due to normal attrition and personal reasons, she added.
Operating with 35 fewer volunteers has been harder, and means fewer clients sometimes can be seen, she said. But the number of people seeking help also has declined as residents relied on government stimulus money and other programs to avoid crises, she said.
Now, however, things are starting to pick up and “Grace is open for business and open for volunteers,” Hinchcliff added.
To recruit volunteers at first, she tapped the 125 churches who supported the agency. She also took part in job and resource fairs, and she uses social media such as Facebook.
Most volunteers come to Grace via word of mouth, Hinchcliff said. “So many people come to us; they want to learn more about Grace Network and want to help. That speaks to the integrity of Grace Network in the community. It has a good name and people want to be part of that,” she added.
Volunteering at Grace Network is different from many other agencies because of the commitment required, Hinchcliff said. “At Grace, there is so much paperwork” and so many procedures to follow that training can take one to two months, she said. “That’s why it’s important they have a commitment to be here.”
People who want to volunteer at Grace or some other agency should talk to family and church members and friends about opportunities in the community and what would be a good fit for them, Hinchcliff said.
“Volunteering is what we all are called to do as Christians, but you want to find a good fit,” she added. That means “finding the right job for the right person that they are capable of doing and enjoy.”
Grace can be reached at (276) 638-8500.
The United Way of Henry County and Martinsville had adapted its Day of Action to the COVID pandemic.
Philip Wenkstern, executive director of the local United Way, said the event’s focus has changed from projects to supplies.
In the past, volunteers — many from area businesses — performed service projects for agencies and groups throughout the community. But as the pandemic worsened, businesses did not want to risk exposing their employee-volunteers to the virus, possibly making them sick and affecting business operations, he said.
Now, the volunteers collect specific supplies requested by the agencies, Wenkstern said. For instance, he said Grace Network might need certain foods or personal hygiene items, which the United Way then would ask volunteers to provide.
Wenkstern noted that there is a need for a central resource to match people interested in volunteering with agencies or organizations needing help. At one time, states could apply for a federal grant that would fund such a data base, he said, but it never happened.
The United Way website lists volunteer opportunities it provides at unitedwayofhcm.org/volunteer.
Volunteer opportunities at several area non-profits also can be found through the new 2022 Non-profit Resource Guide compiled by the United Way, Chamber of Commerce, Harvest Foundation and Economic Development Corp. The guide can be accessed at martinsvillemade.com/working-here/ and scrolling down to the Non-profit Resource Guide.
VITA TAX PROGRAM
One of the “most volunteer-intensive” programs the United Way has is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, Wenkstern said. It offers free tax help to people who generally make $57,000 or less, those with disabilities and limited English speaking taxpayers who need help preparing their tax returns, according to its website.
But now, as the federal tax season begins, the local VITA office is operating with 12 volunteers, eight fewer than usual, according to Lisa Frick, community impact coordinator for the United Way.
“We had a couple (of volunteers) who were hesitant about coming back because of COVID,” she said. Others took paying jobs and could not volunteer, and some found that tax preparation was “overwhelming, too challenging” and they decided against it, Frick added.
To compensate and because of COVID, the VITA staff changed its operations. In the past, clients came in without appointments and waited, often surrounded by other potential clients, to meet with a tax preparer. Now, Frick said clients drop off their paperwork, which is checked and copied, and then they leave. All items are locked up for security reasons and a preparer compiles the tax return later.
When the return is ready, the client makes an appointment to return for the material, she said, adding the turnaround usually takes about a week.
Clients like the appointments because they eliminate waiting around the office, Frick said. Volunteers like it because there is less pressure to prepare the return with the client waiting, she added.
“It works better for everyone,” she said. “We may stick with it” after the pandemic.
Before COVID hit, the local VITA program did about 2,100 returns each tax season, Frick said. Last year it did 1,780 and she is hoping for 1,800 this year.
To find more volunteers, Frick said she has relied on word of mouth, asked churches to post their need for help in their bulletins and contacted educational institutions and alumni associations.
“We love our volunteers” and they are passionate about the service, she said. “We’re like family here.”
VITA, located at 10 Liberty St. in Martinsville, is making appointments now and started seeing clients Jan. 18. Call (276) 403-5976 for an appointment or for more information about volunteering with VITA.