April is National Volunteer Month so I decided to take a look around to see how important volunteers are to our community. Was I surprised! Everywhere you look, you’ll find a volunteer doing something. I’m not talking taking the snow off your neighbor’s sidewalk, or picking up Dad’s mail while you’re downtown or even babysitting the grandkids, although those are important, vital volunteer functions that make our world much easier to live in. I mean doing the time-consuming, hustle-bustle little jobs for an agency or community that frees up someone else to do the vital things that are visible to the public eye.
Just here in the Central Peninsula we have Peninsula Winter Games, Progress Days, Industry Appreciation Day, Christmas Comes to Kenai and many other community functions that could not (and would not) operate without volunteers. And after the obvious major “dos”, don’t forget the service organizations: Moose, Elks, Rotary, Lions and others, that supply the man hours needed to spin the wheels for many activities around the area.
Then we peel back another layer, and find the “silent” volunteers that help at the libraries, the hospital, the visitor centers, the schools, and the food bank, to name only the most obvious of the places you’ll find some dedicated souls, usually doing a job that frees a paid employee to perform a task no more important, but more apparent to the consumer. If you’ve ever wondered “Who took the time to do THAT?” you’re probably enjoying the fruits of several volunteer hours spent at the job.
Some people volunteer on a regular schedule almost like a job: a couple hours a day three days a week, or a day a week all year long. Others do episodic volunteering like the Angel Tree at Christmastime, or the Election Board. And some are specialized volunteers: coaching a team, or cooking the salmon and burgers for a community celebration. You can believe that however they put in the time, volunteers would be missed if they weren’t there.
People who keep track of things like that estimate that one-third of Alaskans volunteer their time at something. This year, volunteers in Alaska are worth over $21 per hour, up from $7.46 in 1980 (for tax purposes). Some entities which have the advantage of regular volunteers are required to keep track of donated hours for the Feds and other administrative purposes. In 2011, 177,950 Alaskans volunteered 24.2 million (recorded) hours. That is about $527.4 million. These statistics are available at http://www.independentsector.org/volunteer_time or simply ‘google’ “Volunteer Time worth” and you’ll find a multitude of sites reporting the value of our volunteers.
Those hours don’t count shoveling the snow from around the cluster box so the postal person can get to it, or the kids who picked up the trash on the beach, or even the hour spent after church cleaning up the coffee hour debris. Right now you’re thinking, “Those are things we do anyway. Just things that come up and need to be done. Somebody has to do it.” And of course you’re right, but what if you didn’t volunteer to do it. What if every volunteer took the day off? Lots of things wouldn’t get done. Who would decorate the tables at the Senior centers? Or sort the donations for the church garage sale? Who would coach the Little League teams? And man the desk at the art center? A quick look around any day, anywhere and you’ll see the fruits of some volunteer’s labor.
While every age group is represented in the volunteer hours, Senior Citizens are the most visible. Probably because they have the most time, and the inclination to get out and do something they’ve always wanted to do without the constraints of having to go to work every day . You’ll find a Senior Citizen or two wherever volunteers are working. I know a woman who goes to Wildwood and teaches the female prisoners how to crochet. (Not saying she’s a Senior Citizen, but her husband might be). Another group around town plays Bluegrass at a couple of churches and at the Kenai Senior Center. Others sit on boards and committees that form the backbone of radio stations, Historical Societies and Visitors Centers. No other age group can devote that kind of time and energy regularly to something they want to do.
The source from which I quoted the statistics presents a line graph comparing the number of Alaska’s volunteers to the rest of the country. It is consistently several points higher than the other 49 states, even at its lowest point. We can speculate every reason from our homesteading history where helping your neighbor could have been a lifesaving event to “we’re just inherently good people up here.” Whatever the reason, Alaskans can be proud of their volunteerism. Actually, we should celebrate volunteers all the time, because our world runs on them.
Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.