Volunteers Week 2020 finds many agencies longing for sidelined workforce

Sue Guinn Legg • Apr 24, 2020 at 10:00 AM

With this year’s National Volunteer Week arriving in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, the annual celebration of the generous contributions of the army of volunteers who make the work of the region’s nonprofit organizations possible has been especially poignant.

With few exceptions, the volunteer workforce that carries out the lion’s share of work that goes into human service programs for the community’s most vulnerable members has been idled at the same time the need for those services are at a historic peak.

In their absence, many of the area’s largest service agencies have dramatically modified their operations for safety and increased their staff and their paid work hours to meet a larger need, particularly the greater need for food assistance that is expected to continue through the end of the year.

At Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, volunteers who once came by the dozens to pack food at the regional food bank warehouse in Kingsport are no longer allowed inside the building. And food pickups by representatives of the more than 140 community pantries that depend on the food bank stores have been stopped in lieu of food bank deliveries

To meet the increased need at the pantries, which last month was up by an average of 50 percent over February, the food bank has hired two additional staff members and is using two delivery trucks and drivers on loan to the food bank from the local Teneva Goodwill Industries.

And even with that, the food bank reports volunteers remain especially important to its work during the COVID-19 crisis, helping in the drive-through food distributions that are being conducted by many of the pantries with special safety restrictions.

In a note posted on its website and social media page, Second Harvest expressed its appreciation directly, saying “Your volunteer efforts help improve the quality of life for so many in Northeast Tennessee. We simply could not do what we do to feed the hungry without your help.”

At Good Samaritan Ministries, which has likewise put a hold on its volunteer programs during the crisis, Executive Director Aaron Murphy echoed that sentiment.

“Our programs absolutely depend on volunteers.” he said. “Good Samaritan Ministries could not fulfill our mission and our vision to serve the needs of the community without volunteers.”

Before the days of social distancing, the ministry averaged 13,500 volunteer hours per year. In March, as people first took it on their own and later came under order to practice social distancing, the number dropped significantly. And by April the volunteer hours bottomed out as the ministry began relying entirely on its paid staff members and shifted its focus to food deliveries. “We deliver about 20 (food boxes) a day. That’s our goal and that’s how much we can handle.”

Of the volunteers who have always provided the ministry with its capacity to serve, Murphy said, “Those who come and serve expecting nothing in return, that’s a beautiful thing. That is a blessing. We can not say ‘thank you’ enough.”

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