The United Way Day of Caring inspired 755 Thurston County volunteers to pitch in and make a difference on Friday.
“We broke a record today” for number of participants, said Jennifer Thompson, volunteer coordinator for United Way’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.
The 21st annual event organized teams of volunteers to help nonprofits with 42 projects that ranged from digging potatoes for the Thurston County Food Bank to cleaning the rock-climbing wall at the Briggs YMCA.
The number of volunteers has risen dramatically the past two years, said Paul Knox, executive director of United Way of Thurston County. The number hovered at 400-500 between 2004 and 2011 before rising to more than 600 last year.
“It’s a giant jump,” he said. “In a county of 200-and-some-thousand people, it’s great that 750-plus folks are volunteering. I can imagine it could be twice that, too, and wouldn’t that be wonderful? I’d like to see it keep growing.”
This year’s volunteer total is particularly impressive when compared with Pierce and Snohomish counties, which both have about three times the population of Thurston County. Snohomish County recorded 950 volunteers, and Pierce had 994.
“This has always been a pretty good community for volunteerism,” Knox said. “There are a lot of ongoing things like the food bank and homeless shelters that rely on volunteers.”
He attributes this year’s increase to additional efforts to promote the event, including a social media photo contest for participants. (Go to facebook.com/UnitedWayThurston and click through to the photo contest to see photos and vote for your favorite.)
“It used to be that Day of Caring was just something we did once a year, but now promoting volunteerism is something we do year round,” he said.
Both the 2-year-old RSVP and the Volunteer Connection, which launched in January, aim to get people giving in more direct ways than United Way’s traditional donation programs.
“We have more than 3,000 donors who are individual donors and who donate through their workplaces, but if they volunteer, they get it more,” he said. “When you volunteer, it helps you see the importance of engagement in the community.”
The day gives nonprofit organizations the resources to tackle big projects, whether that’s yearly maintenance and landscaping or harvesting gardens in preparation for winter.
“Volunteer labor can come and do stuff that would take organizations months to get done if they organized their own volunteers or it would cost them a lot,” Knox said. “This makes their budgets go further toward the real work of providing the services they are trying to provide.”
And the day includes smaller projects, too: At the Olympia Senior Center, a team of two regular RSVP volunteers, along with program coordinator Thompson, was deep-cleaning upholstery and shredding documents.
“We really do appreciate it,” said Joyce Beckwith, an administrative assistant for South Sound Senior Services. “It was something that really needed to be done.”
For volunteers Lou Wilcox and Lin Dahmen, helping out is a regular part of life. Both volunteer in schools weekly, helping children learn to read through the Reading Buddies program, which was developed by RSVP and is also open to younger volunteers.
“It is so fun sitting with little guys and reading with them,” said Wilcox, who is studying education at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. After he completes his degree, he says he wants to open up a nonprofit tutoring center.
Dahmen, who began working with RSVP after she retired from a job at the state Department of Social and Human Services, participated in many past Day of Caring projects with co-workers at DSHS.
“We helped at the Hands On Children’s Museum, and we did weeding and landscaping for Thurston County Youth Services,” Dahmen said. After retirement, she said, “I wanted to still contribute to my community.”
“It’s so nice,” Dahmen said. “The people who work here and the people who come here and take part in the services are stopping by to thank us, and that feels really good.”