Volunteers impact the community

April is National Volunteer Month and is a good time to explore the benefits of helping others.

Shirley Fowler at College Park [supplied by the United Way]

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Posted April 27, 2023 | By Beth Nelson
Vice President Community Impact, United Way of Marion County

Shirley Fowler celebrated her 90th birthday with a classroom of 5- and 6-year-olds at College Park Elementary School. For nine years, Fowler has been with the local United Way’s ReadingPals program, aimed at helping students develop early literacy skills. Nothing could keep her from the classroom, even a milestone birthday falling on her volunteer day.

Fowler said she couldn’t disappoint the two students she reads to weekly. She’s missed one day of volunteering during her nine-year tenure, and her students were so disappointed she could never do that to them again. When she returned to the classroom, they said, “Where have you been?” Fowler recalled. “I never have an excuse not to go, and it keeps me young.”

April is National Volunteer Month, which President George Bush officially named in 1990, and it is the perfect time to explore the benefits of giving back to others. Volunteering can improve your mental health and enrich your life, says 84-year-old ReadingPals volunteer Sally Ahrens.

“As long as I read to the children, I won’t feel my age. It just fills me,” said Ahrens, a former Hospice of Marion County volunteer.

ReadingPals volunteer Chris Riopel said volunteering is not just about giving back. She contends it improves her quality of life. Riopel enjoyed an active lifestyle after retirement. She exercised and taught classes at Master the Possibilities, but something was missing. For Riopel, paying it forward and sharing her talents was the missing link. She encourages others to give back. Find what you are passionate about and then seek out that organization. She suggests you can volunteer at an animal shelter, hospital, food pantry, senior living center, or charity organization. Volunteer websites allow you to input your skills, preferences, and schedule, and match you with opportunities.

Rich Lovelace is a former bicycle police officer whose job training included bike repair. After he retired, he offered his skills to Brother’s Keeper, a Blessed Trinity Catholic Church ministry that serves the needy through emergency assistance and a soup kitchen. The social service agency has many bikes donated to its thrift store so, when Lovelace asked if they could use his volunteer skills, the answer was a resounding “Yes.” Two of Lovelace’s repaired bikes went to siblings who needed them to get to work.

“You receive so much by giving just a little,” Lovelace, 64, said.

Currently, Florida ranks as the lowest volunteer state in the nation, with 22.8% of residents participating, according to the Corporation for National and Community Services AmeriCorps. The low participation rate is in part due to the transient nature of the population.

Volunteer advocates like Karen Reed hope Marion County can lead the charge to improve Florida’s ranking.

Reed, United Way’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) volunteer, said, “You decide your hours and commitment. It’s not like a job.”

Many organizations will have opportunities that only take an hour or two a week. She advises that volunteers should not worry about whether they are qualified.

“I am not an accountant, but I have a computer, and the IRS trained me to do the taxes,” she said.

The most important thing is being passionate about where you share your time and talents.

Fowler took the attitude that she would try several different volunteer opportunities. She knew she had found her niche when she read to her first student. After a year, the kids’ reading improved, Fowler shared.

“It makes you feel good because the kids feel good,” Fowler said. “It’s exciting when students build confidence and read to me.”

Fowler said volunteering keeps her young at heart, and she encourages others to explore the program.

“Try it and see how it goes,” Fowler said. “It doesn’t matter what age you are. The kids don’t care how old you are. They just want someone to read to them.”

Volunteering also has rewards like improving the community, bolstering a resume, and creating social networks.

Another volunteer, Pat Palmer, says reading with kids brings joy.

“I definitely receive more than I give,” Palmer said.

For Reed, who also volunteers at ReadingPals and Bridges, volunteering is a way of returning assistance her family received when she was young.

“My family needed help, and, at a young age, I determined I would pay it back,” she said.

Many employers will give time off from work to volunteer or compensate time later. The Marion County Clerk of Courts has more than 20 employees who are ReadingPals volunteers since 2022.

“This has been a great volunteer opportunity to extend to our employees, and I am proud to work alongside such good people who are willing to take time out of their day to give back to our community, reading to local students,” said Marion County Comptroller and Clerk of Courts Gregory Harrell.

Retirees are not the only ones contributing to their community. Youths starting as young as 13 are doing their part. Ocala Fire Rescue Community Paramedics Capt. Chris Hickman and Capt. Jesse Blaire oversee The Ocala Marion Mentorship Program.

“Volunteering allows someone searching for a direction in their life to find the resources they need for life skills, coping mechanisms, and mental toughness,” Blaire said.

For this reason, participants of the mentorship program have committed every Tuesday evening to help United Way’s Strong Families program set up and tear down tables for the family meals. The students also benefit from receiving community hours needed for graduation.

“It is humbling when you give something valuable to someone else,” Blaire said.

Homeschoolers under the direction of Mandi Moore serve as ReadingPals volunteers at Belleview-Santos Elementary, working with children in the Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program. Some of the volunteers are 13 years old.

Volunteers also help fill the gap for organizations like Strong Families or the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Across our community, volunteers are an integral part of care and support services,” said Connie Storms, Program Manager for the Alzheimer’s Association.

United Way President Bob Haight goes a step further, stressing that volunteerism is at the heart of our society’s success.

“Volunteers are critical to our faith community, local government, education, health care, social services, the arts community, animal and environmental organizations, and business groups. Volunteerism shapes our society daily for the betterment of others,” he said.

ReadingPals Director Jan Hathaway echoes these sentiments. The impact on the community is measurable. Since 2012, ReadingPals has partnered with Marion County Public Schools. In 2023, more than 186 children, with the help of over 100 volunteers investing more than 3,200 hours, are bridging the gap between community impact and education.

“We can train you. Your passion and commitment are all that is required,” Hathaway said. “Volunteers are why we can impact 18 elementary schools and 28 classrooms across Marion County. Students need to learn to read so they can read to learn.”

For information about how to become a ReadingPals volunteer, contact Hathaway at (352) 732-9696, ext. 212.



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