Volunteer Connection fills vital role for area

Eighteen months after the Volunteer Center of Lewis, Mason and Thurston Counties closed its doors in July 2011, the United Way of Thurston County is recapturing the former organization’s spirit with a new focus and new technology.

Volunteer Connection, a database and website hub for volunteers and myriad Thurston County service providers who need them, is an Internet-age reincarnation of the old Volunteer Center.

This exciting new tool has the potential to take the spirit of volunteerism – already so strong in our community – to a higher level of participation.

For more than two decades, the Volunteer Center encouraged volunteerism and linked those willing to offer their time and resources with opportunities.

But when Executive Director Sara Ballard died suddenly at age 36 in March 2011, the center had neither the leadership nor the financial means to continue. It shut down just a few months later, creating a huge hole in our county.

The United Way had already assumed the center’s popular Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) before the center shut down, and now it is primed to fill the rest of the gap with Volunteer Connection.

Clicking the “volunteer” link on United Way’s website takes the viewer to a searchable database of community organizations seeking volunteers and in-kind donations.

Each organization meeting the United Way’s broad criteria for being included on the website will have its own landing page where it can describe its mission, provide contact information and offer a link to its own website.

More than 30 community organizations have signed up and created pages within the database. Every Thurston County entity that uses volunteers should sign up – big or small, profit or nonprofit – because the more comprehensive this database becomes, the more useful it will be.

The website would benefit, too, if municipalities, schools, libraries and military organizations also join the program.

Some groups will benefit more than others. New organizations, niche groups or those requiring a special skill set that do not have a well-established pipeline of volunteers should find Volunteer Connection particularly helpful to find the resources they need.

High school students who need a community service project to meet class or graduation requirements, and their teachers, will find Volunteer Connection an invaluable resource.

United Way promises to keep the database open to all, without showing favoritism to any organization. If it does – and there’s no reason to think otherwise – Volunteer Connection can raise the volunteerism capacity of the whole community.

In addition to linking volunteers with opportunities through its new online database, United Way plans to provide other volunteer services. It will, for example, convene a monthly learning group, where volunteer coordinators can build relationships and share best practices.

Volunteer Connection debuts at a time when volunteers are more critical than ever before for agencies and nonprofits. Many are struggling financially, and sometimes just having enough people to keep the doors open another day can make the difference in someone’s life.

For many organizations, people willing to give their time is more valuable than money.

For individuals who give the gift of their time, the payback is knowing you’ve done what you could to make Thurston County a better place.

The United Way deserves praise for stepping up to continue and build on 20 years of good work by the former Volunteer Center. Now it’s up to the community itself to make Volunteer Connection a success.

Editor’s note: Doug Mah, one of this year’s community representatives on The Olympian editorial board, also serves on the United Way board of directors. He did not participate in the deliberations for this editorial, or in its writing.