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Gifted givers: There’s no shortage of volunteer opportunities for RNs in the U.S.

Monday June 4, 2012
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Just a few years ago, the cliché “money makes the world go round” defined many Americans’ economic perspective. Today, with stagnating unemployment, rising healthcare costs and growing numbers seeking food pantry assistance, the phrase “volunteers make the world go round” might be more apt.

More than 26% of the American population, or 62.2 million people, donate time each year to charitable efforts, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. While the number of volunteers speaks volumes about the American spirit of lending a helping hand, the nation’s weakened economy has created a need for additional altruists. “There are so many gaps in the system, but not the resources to plug those,” said Sue Averill, RN, co-founder of the Seattle-based nonprofit One Nurse at a Time, which helps volunteers find opportunities. ”But if we all participate a little bit, whether volunteering a few hours a week or once a month, we can begin to close some of the holes in the healthcare system and society.”

With one in six Americans living in poverty and more than 46 million lacking health insurance, the need for volunteers permeates all sectors of society, said Aoife McCarthy, press secretary for the CNCS. Simple volunteer actions, such as donating clothing or food to area collection drives can make a notable difference in the lives of the needy. “But if you have someone with an area of expertise, be it nursing or public affairs or whatever, being able to tap their existing resources is a much more effective way of using the nation’s volunteers,” McCarthy said.

Free clinics, community health fairs, disaster relief and public health awareness are among the areas where nurses’ specialized skills might have the most impact.

“If nurses look at all of the patients they’ve made a difference with, for them to bring that knowledge and care into the community, into a neighborhood they might not even be aware of, that can make a huge difference,” McCarthy said. “There aren’t many options for people who don’t have access to healthcare. [Nursing volunteers] can bring a sense of care throughout their communities.”

Getting started

Thanks to the Internet, finding local venues in need of nursing volunteers is as simple as inputting a search term into volunteering-geared websites like Serve.gov, which is the CNCS’ volunteer opportunity search engine, or OneNurseataTime.org, Averill’s website, which she co-founded with fellow RN Staci Kelley. The site allows users to input their specialty, location and duration to search volunteer opportunities at more than 400 nonprofit organizations. While the site lists opportunities that can last weeks or months, oftentimes the best way to get involved is by starting small, Averill suggested. “I have a friend who once every week or two buys bagged salad mix and dressing and goes to feed the hungry at their spaghetti dinner,” she said. “They serve it, while interacting with people and saying ‘I care.’”

Averill said those who participate in the dinners see the volunteers week after week and begin to develop a bond. “They are seeing that there are people who care about them,” she said.

The nonprofit HandsOn Network, handsonnetwork.org, also helps link prospective volunteers with local groups through a network of action centers. The group, a partner of the U.S. government, has more than 250 action centers in the U.S. and 16 other countries.

Prospective volunteers need to remember small amounts add up, said Sandie Soldwisch, APN, PhD, ANP-BC, dean of the Resurrection University College of Nursing in Oak Park, Ill. An elective course, service learning is among the nursing school’s most popular electives with nearly 20% of students enrolling since its creation. In addition to volunteering 40 hours at one of several Chicagoland agencies, students participate in classroom discussions to share their experiences and what they gained. “I don’t think it should be a requirement because it removes a lot of the personal drive,” Soldwisch said, adding that the trend among nursing schools is to keep such courses elective. “What I would rather do is provide them the opportunity to fall in love, support them while they’re developing that activity and love, and hopefully the reward will be people who continue to do it throughout their lives.”

After finishing the course, students have returned to the place at which they volunteered, Soldwisch said. “Students feel like they’ve been transformed by the opportunity to give their gifts to someone who needs it — it’s almost like it starts a maturing process,” she said.

It’s a process that can have lasting effects. “The students are still in the formative stages of their careers and if one can be exposed to a service opportunity while they’re in this stage, it becomes a part of what he or she envisions nurses to do,” she said.

The impact of America’s volunteers

• In 2010, 26.3% of all Americans, or 62.8 million volunteered, donating roughly 8.1 billion hours of service. The monetary value of this time was nearly $173 billion, when using the 2010 Independent Sector valuation of $21.36 per hour.

• In 2010, volunteers born between 1965 and 1981, or generation X, volunteered at a rate of 29.2%; baby boomers at 28.8%; and millennials at 21.2%.

• Also in 2010, 8.1% of Americans, or 19 million people, participated in informal volunteering, such as working with neighbors to address a community problem.

• According to volunteer data from 2008 through 2010, 35% of volunteers work for religious organizations, 26.7% for educational purposes, 14% for social service groups, 8.4% in hospitals, 5.5% for civic functions, 3.4% for sporting and artistic causes, and 7% in other pursuits.

Source: Corporation for National and Community Service


Long-lasting effects

Even seasoned career professionals who have never volunteered can find themselves bitten by the volunteering bug, said Averill, who developed an “addiction” to volunteering after a mission trip to Guatemala in 1999. “I was hooked so I started looking for more and more trips to do,” she said. “I started with two weeks, then four, but it just wasn’t enough.”

As Averill continued to take mission trips and work with volunteer agencies, among them Doctors Without Borders, she recognized a glaring hole among agencies seeking healthcare volunteers. “There was nothing out there for nurses who wanted to start getting involved but didn’t know how,” she explained. “There was no central place that nurses could come to get help about volunteering.”

So in 2007 Averill and Kelley founded One Nurse at a Time. As part of the process to vet organizations in need of nursing volunteers, the women contacted thousands of agencies in the U.S. to learn what kind of nurses were needed, contact information and other pertinent details. In addition to posting the information, One Nurse at a Time began fundraising and offering $1,000 grants to nurses who otherwise might not be able to finance their volunteer endeavors. In 2011, 14 such scholarships were awarded.

An average of 10 nurses each week contact the website looking for volunteer opportunities, Averill said. “It seems like many nurses that come to us are older and oftentimes second-career nurses,” she said. “A lot of them seem to be having that epiphany that they want to give back and are really building it into their lives.”

While it might seem an impossible task in today’s working world to donate extra without recompense, volunteering is rejuvenating, Averill said. “It doesn’t take more than a year or two before young nurses start to get jaded and rote about what they’re doing, and I think what volunteering does is it jolts you out of that,” Averill said. “You’re there by choice, not because you have to pay the bills.

“Whether you’re volunteering at a homeless shelter, women’s shelter or free clinic, you’re making individual differences in someone’s life and there is plenty of positive reinforcement that comes back to you as a nurse and caregiver. It really keeps the spirit of why I wanted to become a nurse alive because I think in the everyday work world you can lose that.”


Robin Huiras is a freelance writer. Post a comment below or email specialty@Nurse.com.