In my reporting for this week’s cover story about small upstart volunteer efforts working alongside legacy nonprofits to provide direct aid due to the pandemic, I met some fascinating and inspiring people. Mostly, they were older folks in retirement. Despite being one of the most susceptible populations to Covid-19, they felt a calling to help those in need get some relief.
For some, it’s motivated by religious service. For others, it’s just to fill time. I realized that shouldn’t surprise me at all. I’ve written in the past about other volunteer efforts, like a youth breakfast program that was incredibly effective—but then was in danger of closing. Faced with that prospect, volunteers came out in droves to keep it alive. And I remember seeing them myself years earlier, handing out boxes of tissues, pencils and other school supplies, in the rain, when I was attending Marina Vista Elementary School.
It’s not just retirees volunteering in droves. There has been a surge, according to Tish Sammon, co-founder of Community Builders of Monterey County, which helps match volunteers with organizations that need them. She says some want to build a new skill or fill their time during SIP: “There are many reasons people volunteer.”
Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, our economy, schools, public services and more rely on extra hands—or to put it in an unromantic way, free labor. There are an estimated 66 million to 77 million volunteers in the United States. If volunteers were paid for their work, they’d command $15-$41.17/hour, depending on the service, according to estimates by Nonprofit Times. That’s potentially the equivalent of trillions of dollars of aid that is being delivered by people just because they feel like it.
It is easy to spiral and see the gaps in our social safety nets and to think about how much less it would cost not to let people starve or go homeless. It’s easy to think nonprofits and little neighborhood efforts shouldn’t have so much work to do. It’s easy to reduce volunteer labor to dollars and cents. But all the volunteers I’ve spoken with know their worth—and they know they’re helping somebody and helping their community through a crisis. At the very last, we owe them a thank you: Thank you for seeing the need. Thank you for fixing it in whatever way you can, and for making our community more resilient.
-Marielle Argueza, staff writer, firstname.lastname@example.org