Volunteers aren't rare or endangered in the Aiken area. There are plenty of men, women, teenagers and even small children willing to sort clothes, answer telephones, file paperwork, build houses and perform other tasks.
“This is my sixth year with the United Way, and it's just amazing to me the level of support in this community,” said Sharon Rodgers, president of the United Way of Aiken County. “If you need something or want to do something, all you have to do is ask and people are like, 'Where do you need me to be? What do you want me to do?' It's overwhelming.”
The United Way's board is the largest it has ever been during Rodgers' tenure, with 55 members. A nominating committee comes up with candidates and “this year just about everybody said, 'Yes,'” Rodgers reported.
The United Way's number of volunteers rose from 1,805 in 2011 to 2,158 in 2012.
“We partnered with USC Aiken last year to do a Day of Caring and that increased the total by 200,” Rodgers said.
In addition, representatives of several big companies have reached out without being prompted and contacted Rodgers with offers to help within the last year.
“They call and say, 'We've got people who want to be involved. Can you talk to them about volunteering? Can you help them find the right spot?'” Rodgers said. “I had never had businesses like that calling me to do that before.”
According to Rodgers, Aiken is a good source of volunteers because it is close-knit.
“I can't explain why it is so special,” she said, “but there is a sense of community and a lack of competition. The nonprofit organizations partner and collaborate. We all work together and the common good is the focus.”
The number of volunteers also has grown at the Aiken Area Chapter of the Red Cross. Lindsay Findley, the organization's executive director, said there are about 115 volunteers who are currently active. A year ago, there were “just under 100,” she reported.
Findley believes Aiken's popularity as a retirement community makes the pool of enthusiastic volunteers larger here than it is in some other cities of the same size.
“We have a lot of retired individuals who want to find projects or organizations they can give their time to,” she said.
The Red Cross recently has seen more interest from high school and college students in becoming volunteers during the summer.
“We have five who are volunteering pretty regularly, and that's a lot for us,” Findley said. “Usually we only have one or two during the summer who are regular weekly volunteers. I think a lot of kids want to make sure they have community volunteer experience for their college applications, and the students who are already in college want to have some real-life work experience to put on their resumes when they apply for jobs after they graduate. We can train them how to do administrative tasks here and teach them the basics.”
The Aiken Chapter of the American Red Cross works hard to recruit volunteers.
“During local presentations in the community when we are asking for financial support, we also ask for the support of time from individuals,” Findley said. “We also are reaching out to corporations in the area from time to time and asking them to help with specific projects.”
Keeping the volunteers it already has is another important Red Cross effort.
“We are focusing more on volunteer retention,” Findley said. “We are making sure that we recognize our volunteers at least annually and spotlight them in newsletters. We want to try to make them feel like they have some ownership of projects. I'm also learning that it is important to make sure that we find a niche for each individual volunteer. We want every volunteer to have a feeling of fulfillment.”
Area Churches Together Serving has about 300 volunteers and that number is “pretty steady,” according to the organization's operations manager, Karen Perry.
Interest in volunteering “is probably higher in Aiken than it is in most of your average cities,” she said. “I think a lot of people here aren't as self-involved as they are in other places. They are more willing to give back to the community.”
The Salvation Army of Aiken has “hundreds” of volunteers and the number is “about the same” as it has been in the past, according to Capt. David Repass.
“It really hasn't dwindled,” he said. “But I wouldn't ever say that we have a surplus of volunteers because there is always something more that could be done with more hands on deck.”