Volunteers are the backbone of any nonprofit organization.
They help keep the doors open and the wheels running so organizations can deliver vital services and programs that serve as lifelines to a community.
According to a 2021 AmeriCorps report for the state of Florida:
• 3,876,534 volunteers contribute 340.7 million hours of service
• 22.8% of residents volunteer, ranking them 51st among states
• Volunteer service worth an estimated $8.2 billion
• 95.4% of residents regularly talk or spend time with friends and family
• 50.9% of residents do favors for neighbors
• 23.6% of residents do something positive for the neighborhood
• 19.2% of residents participate in local groups or organizations
• 43.2% of residents donate $25 or more to charity
However, 19 months into the coronavirus pandemic, volunteering is still a casualty of the disease.
Just as employers report difficulty finding employees, nonprofits are hurting for volunteers.
“This is happening all over the nation, not just Citrus County,” said Laurie Diestler, Citrus County Nature Coast Volunteer Center (NCVC) supervisor.
Outside the Visitor’s Center at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a message on a sign board facing traffic on U.S. 19 pleads for volunteer tram drivers.
“We have a full staff of state employees, but volunteers help take care of a lot of things we do at the park,” said Kate Spratt, park services specialist. “And we definitely have less than we’ve had in the past.
“We have a tremendous amount of seasonal volunteers to begin with, and a lot are snowbirds and are just starting to return, so we’ll see what happens,” she said.
Besides tram drivers, the park also needs certified SCUBA dive volunteers to clean the underwater windows of the Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory and check the spring for hazards that could be harmful to manatees, from umbrellas and cellphones to fishing line and lures.
“If I have enough people, we’re in the water three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Spratt said.
Diestler said of the 529 Citrus County volunteers registered with the AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP program that NCVC runs, currently about half are actually turning in hours.
“When COVID hit, a lot of our organizations that use volunteers scaled back or had their volunteers not come in at all,” Diestler said. “When things started looking better (this past spring), people started going back to volunteering, but then when it started getting worse with the Delta variant, they got worried again.
“The average age of our volunteers is 74, and they’re concerned with their health and well being,” she said. “Some have cut back the number of days they volunteer; some are just waiting to see what’s going to happen. But we’ve gotten emails from people who say, ‘Don’t take me off your list; I’m still interested, but I’m not feeling secure just yet.’”
Diestler also said that some people are using this time to try something different, a different organization or a different job or skill.
“A lot of them are vaccinated now and they’re tired of being at home, and they want to be busy,” she said. “Our whole function is connecting volunteers with places that need them, and yes, we’re getting calls from places saying we NEED volunteers.”
The Nature Coast Volunteer Center works with 45 local agencies and organizations that depend on volunteers, including: county libraries, state parks, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Crystal River Preserve, historical society museums, Meals on Wheels, Citrus United Basket (CUB), DayStar Life Center, Habitat for Humanity, Citrus County Blessings, Sheriff’s Youth Ranch thrift store, Salvation Army mobile canteen, Ziggy’s Haven Bird Sanctuary, and many others.
For more information about how and where you can volunteer, call the Nature Coast Volunteer Center at 352-527-5959.
Or, if there’s an organization that you’re interested in, call them directly and see what volunteer opportunities they have available.