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National volunteer shortage impacts local nonprofits

  • By Donnie Kirchner/WVIA
Volunteers sort produce at United Neighborhood Centers' pantry.

 Donnie Kirchner / WVIA News

Volunteers sort produce at United Neighborhood Centers' pantry.

Jeffrey Ginsberg does not know who will be serving his clients their much-needed provisions a week from now.

Ginsberg, a case manager with United Neighborhood Centers in Scranton, said there have been days when the nonprofit’s food pantry has functioned almost entirely on staffers like himself.

“There were times I’d be back there [in the kitchen] wishing I could turn into an octopus,” said Ginsberg. “You know, grabbing so many things at one time.”

United Neighborhood Centers is a nonprofit aimed at meeting a variety of community needs. On any given weekday, UNC provides monetary assistance for those struggling with utility bills, helps establish access to affordable housing, and offers clothing and goods through their “Angel’s Attic” program.

All of this, in addition to running their pantry, where people can come in for full bags of groceries at no cost. Ginsberg said it’s a massive undertaking, and one that requires heaps of help from volunteers.

Over the past several years, however, the number of volunteers has dwindled.

Donnie Kirchner / WVIA News

Jessica Wallo, Jeffrey Ginsberg and Donovan Ramirez of UNC’s Community Service Center.

Jessica Wallo, the organization’s Community Service Director, said she tries to not to dwell on the negatives.

“That’s kind of our mindset with UNC,” she said. “When you’re working with those who are in crisis, we try to always look at the good. That being said, we absolutely do need volunteers.”

Statistically speaking, UNC is not alone.

The volunteer rate declined from 26.5% to 25.1%. from 2008 to 2018, according to a study from research firm Statista.

2018 study from the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy found that a similar decline in volunteerism from 2004 to 2015 had big implications. If the volunteer rate had remained constant since 2004, 9.8 million more Americans would have volunteered by 2015.

In a survey conducted by the Charities Aid Foundation Center in 2020, the group found that nearly a third of the nation’s nonprofits were unsure if they could continue to operate for the following twelve months.

And while some organizations were forced to make the difficult decision to shut down operations, others, including UNC, saw an uptick in help at the onset of the pandemic.

“When people were receiving assistance checks from the government, we were able to keep a relatively consistent flow of volunteers during that time,” said Ginsberg.

Blue Chip Farm Animal Refuge in Dallas is another regional nonprofit that saw a boost in interest during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the beginning, everyone thought it was a really fun idea to volunteer and adopt,” said Emma Ripka, a full-time employee of the animal sanctuary.

While a myriad of pandemic pets found forever homes, Blue Chip said they haven’t had as much luck since the beginning of the pandemic’s lockdown.

“Now that everything has kind of calmed down, we have no volunteers coming through,” Ripka said.

Ripka said the majority of Blue Chip volunteers are those looking for community service hours. Once those hours are logged though, many do not return.

“It’s hard to get someone who comes and stays,” she said. “They’ll come a few times, and it’s always helpful, but it’s hard to find the people that actually stick.”

Donnie Kirchner / WVIA

Emma Ripka of Blue Chip smiles with Aries, a “forever resident” of the sanctuary.

United Neighborhood Centers is grateful to have a handful of lasting volunteers.

Donovan Ramirez, program coordinator at UNC, said that he has come to rely on several volunteers that have been with the organization for upwards of thirty years. He said those individuals are invaluable for day-to-day operations, as are the teens participating in a youth summer program that UNC runs.

“But once the summer’s over,” Ramirez said, “we’re definitely going to be struggling.”

Officials from both organizations said they’ve grown accustomed to the uncertainty of finding volunteers. But the reason behind that fluctuation seems to be up for debate.

“It’s very similar to the worker shortage,” Ripka suggested. “It’s just carrying over into volunteering. If people don’t really want to work, they really don’t want to work for free.”

Cynthia Defebo, Director of Pike County Workforce Development in Shohola, sees things a little differently.

“We have been very busy as of recently,” she said. “Jobseeker activity has really picked up over the last several months.”

Defebo attends career fairs in her area and visits schools looking for new hires looking to join the workforce. But she also pointed to a so-called “silver tsunami,” a trend that has seen members of the Baby Boomer generation choosing retirement around the pandemic.

Defebo believes this statistical shift in personnel nationwide is what may contribute to an ongoing worker shortage. But that just might be a solution for volunteer-run organizations.

“It’s not the young people that these nonprofits should be looking at,” Defebo maintains. “Wages have been increasing, inciting the younger generations to [get serious] about the workforce. I think if you’re looking for a volunteer, look to the older generation.”

Back at UNC, several volunteers are retirees. Jeff Ginsberg is grateful for them.

“We see how hard they work, whether it’s bringing up cases of water from the basement, or filling bags with food,” he said. “That’s all work. They’re really hard workers.”

Ginsberg added that there are many benefits to volunteering.

“You get a sense of contributing, of giving of yourself to your community, a sense of self awareness, building empathy skills and compassion for others while meeting a very diverse group of people, which is always good.”

For more information on volunteering for United Neighborhood Centers in Scranton, call (570) 346-0759.

To volunteer with Blue Chip Farm Animal Refuge, call (570) 333-5265.

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