The Forgotten Volunteer
Being involved in a number of community groups that bring me in contact with organizations seeking volunteers, I constantly hear the lament, "People just don't have time to volunteer anymore." Yes, this may be true for a segment of the population, but there is another segment - a segment often overlooked - that is not only anxious and able to volunteer but who also sees volunteerism as a way of giving back to the community that has helped its members.
Who are these volunteers? They are people with developmental disabilities.
First, let me define developmental disability. It is a condition that interrupts the normal human development towards adulthood, occurring sometime between conception and age 21. It can include, but is not limited to, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, seizure disorders and head injuries.
Working for Careers Industries - a Racine County, Wisconsin agency that provides community-based activities, learning experiences, vocational training and employment for nearly 240 people with developmental disabilities -, nearly every weekday I see groups of Integrated Day Services (IDS) program participants, accompanied by a staff member, going out into the community to volunteer for another nonprofit organization.
"Whenever the participants in IDS are asked to help volunteer at a site or in-house, the response is always the same, 'Sure I can help,!'" said Shawn Ryan, IDS Director. "The participants love to volunteer and feel like they are giving back to the community."
What type of volunteer activities do they do? Participants from both of Careers' facilities can be found packing groceries at food banks, sorting clothing to be given to those in need, delivering Meals on Wheels, straightening magazines at local libraries, visiting with an elderly person, collating church bulletins, picking up trash along trails of a nature preserve - the list goes on and on.
"We have had volunteers from Careers Industries coming to our facility weekly for about two years now. They perform a wide variety of simple but greatly needed jobs," said Candy Brown, Volunteer Coordinator for the Ridgewood Care Center, a long-term care, and short-term rehabilitation, facility owned by the county.
During the summer, Careers participants tend some of Ridgewood's perennial beds; in the winter they assist with cleaning.
"Our staff and residents greatly look forward to their arrival as it is always somewhat of a social event," Brown added.
Mailings are another area in which Careers' participants have been able to help other nonprofit organizations. Just recently, when the Racine Zoo needed a mailing for a fundraising event turned around quickly, the participants came through. The mailing consisted of placing three inserts into an envelope and applying mailing labels.
"When I told you that I had something and informed you of my deadline, it was wonderful to hear, 'We can do that,'" said Ginger Minneti, Marketing/Public Relations Director for the Racine Zoo. "I was elated and then even more so after the participants did such a fine job and finished it even before the deadline."
By offering the above examples of how people with developmental disabilities have given back to their community through volunteerism, I hope that other volunteer coordinators will look at rehabilitation facilities in their communities as a source for volunteers. Considering that a 1980's study concluded that 2.5 to 3 percent of the general population has mental retardation, that's a large potential volunteer base to overlook.