A Winning Recipe for Volunteerism: A Program in North Carolina Takes College Students, Mixes in Individuals with Disabilities and Adds Park Staff Support to Create a Winning Combination

Article excerpt

How many hours did your staff spend spreading mulch or pine needles? Does your agency need to clear a new trail, but lack the staff time to get it accomplished? Are citizens asking to volunteer in your park, but you lack the resources to effectively manage them on projects? Are you being asked to expand the successful programs that you currently offer? Has it also been suggested that you serve a more diverse population? Why not begin to address all of these issues at once.

The Greensboro (NC) Parks and Recreation department found a way to do just that. Instead of managing individual volunteers, the agency designed programs where volunteering was the targeted recreational activity. The recreational needs of individuals with and without disabilities are being met, while agencies are reaping the benefits of hundreds of volunteer hours through this inclusive park program.

The traditional model of engaging volunteers focuses exclusively on meeting the needs of the agency. By matching individual volunteers with needed tasks within the agency, short-term outcomes for the facility are realized. However, if volunteers' needs are not also met, they are likely to become short-term visitors. In addition, managing volunteers who support your park can be a time-consuming endeavor.

Think about structuring a recreation program where volunteering is the essence of the experience. Through this unique and active recreational pursuit, participants are likely to see increases in skill development, self-esteem, social networking, sense of community and empowerment. Extraordinary outcomes result when a group of volunteers become part of a team of individuals working toward a common goal. A sense of camaraderie and belonging develops as individuals work side-by-side with other altruistic citizens.

Add an additional layer to this "volunteering as recreation" strategy. Actively invite individuals with disabilities to join your volunteer program; that is people who have rarely, if ever, been asked to give back to their communities. Despite comprising approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population, researchers suggest that individuals with disabilities make up only about 5 percent of our nation's volunteer pool. An inclusive volunteer program brings individuals with disabilities into the volunteer service arena and a "win-win-win" situation begins to evolve.

What is inclusive volunteering?

Volunteering empowers people with disabilities to serve others, rather than being the recipients of volunteer services. Inclusive volunteering brings individuals with and without disabilities together to improve their communities by placing them in positions to be recognized as community assets with many gifts and talents to share. It is beneficial to volunteers and nonprofit agencies alike. Volunteers with and without disabilities are rewarded with feelings of empowerment and increased community participation. Organizations served by these volunteers also typically notice a transformation in its staff's view of people of varying abilities. Agency staff becomes focused on the abilities of volunteers rather than their limitations, concurrently noting improvements in their agencies' services.

Preparing and Implementing the Inclusive Volunteer Program

The Department of Recreation, Tourism, and Hospitality Management of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) collaborated with the Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department to establish an inclusive volunteer program. This program brought together high school students with developmental disabilities and students without disabilities from UNCG. For the past five years, students with and without disabilities have been meeting together weekly for two hours to volunteer in various parks during 10-week periods. The volunteers completed meaningful projects including trail building, mulching, picking up litter, weeding and building birdhouses, bridges, gates and signs. …

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