Local nonprofits need you: How volunteers fuel the day-to-day missions of area charities

2.3 million Michiganders volunteered last year, contributing $4.4 billion in economic value. In West Michigan, local nonprofits rely on volunteers for their day-to-day operations.
“In 2017, one in three adults (30.3%) volunteered through an organization, demonstrating that volunteering remains an important activity for millions of Americans.” Such begins the Corporation for National and Community Service’s “Volunteering in America” report. And though the state of Michigan rates just 36th in the nation at 29.40 percent, this number still means that 2.3 million Michiganders volunteered last year, contributing an estimated economic value of $4.4 billion. And that’s nothing to shake a stick at.

Here in West Michigan, volunteerism is clearly alive and kicking, with a plethora of nonprofits at the fingertips of any would-be volunteer with a few hours and a passion for service on their hands. Whether your cause is the environment, children in need, food equity, or any number of worthwhile missions, Grand Rapids nonprofits are making it easier to get involved. And despite the purveyance of technology, volunteers continue to play a vital role in the day-to-day operations of these remarkable organizations.

The Heart of West Michigan United Way “really exists to be a hub for volunteers in Kent County,” says Katelyn Kovalik, volunteer center manager at the nonprofit. In order to accomplish the United Way’s mission to end poverty in West Michigan, Kovalik and her staff seek “to showcase and highlight the work that nonprofits do every day that helps to make progress in these issues of food insecurity, financial instability, housing, [and] youth education,” she says.

And Kovalik — in her role to manage all of the volunteers that come through her door or contact her staff through their website — works to connect and serve 10,000 volunteers per year. That’s right. 10,000.

United Way volunteers. And yes, part of this total is the corporate groups from local companies working together on team- and culture-building projects in the community, but, “The mass majority are residents of Kent County who just want to help their community,” says Kovalik.

These individuals, while passionate for a particular cause, are also curious. What does food equity really mean? What is the state of schools in my county? Is the housing crisis, a crisis, and who is experiencing it?

“To us, it really serves as an educational opportunity,” says Kovalik, who often connects first-time volunteers with a project of which they know little, but are seeking more information. For example, “We want to create opportunities that you get to do a hands-on activity that supports housing for local families, and get to learn a little bit about the issue,” she says. 

Volunteers with United Way prepare food at the VanAndel Arena during a huge volunteer event held every summer.

For Kovalik and the staff at United Way, each volunteer session is an opportunity for the cause and the nonprofit to gain exposure — and assistance — through a helpful and curious volunteer. While large nonprofits in the community often gain this exposure through big, notable projects or even a long history of work in the city, the work of smaller nonprofits sometimes goes unnoticed. 

Perhaps not widely known is the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan (DSAWM). “We use a ton of volunteers,” says Jennifer DeVault, executive director at the DSAWM. Organizing between 300-500 volunteers each year, DeVault’s staff pairs their members — children or adults with Down Syndrome — with volunteers who do not have the condition, in activities like tennis. 

Buddy Up Tennis with the DSAWM.This particular program, “Buddy Up Tennis,” takes places every Saturday in the fall, spring, and summer, facilitating the learning of a lifelong game. And though some of the volunteers are experienced players, “You don’t have to be skilled in tennis in order to be a volunteer,” says DeVault. 

Some of DeVault’s volunteers have had a personal experience with a family member or friend with Down Syndrome, others simply share a passion for these individuals, and still others are students seeking service experience in an effort to give back and learn more. For example, students at Forest Hills Northern recently participated in Buddy Up Tennis, and then went on to host a carnival for DSAWM’s members, in which they raised $3000 for the nonprofit.

DSAW volunteers help with bicycling. “We take volunteers from all spectrums,” says DeVault. And right now, with the economy seeing greater strides than it has in decades, ordinary citizens have more time on their hands to spend serving others. “Right now, we’re doing really well with volunteers,” she adds.

In addition to an upswing in the economy, the culture regarding volunteering is steadily changing, according to Kovalik.

“There’s a lot of growth. More and more companies are adding policies in their workplace that allow people to step away from their work to volunteer in the community,” she says. Some of these companies that work with United Way in corporate volunteering are Steelcase, Farmers’ Insurance, and 5/3 Bank.

And for Kovalik, “The nonprofit community is amazing here,” she says. “It’s really becoming the norm to have community engagement and volunteerism become part of your culture.” And as the culture across the nation changes to encourage more of its employees to engage in volunteer time, “In West Michigan, it feels like every company does,” she adds. 

This history of service is clearly seen at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), a nonprofit that just celebrated 50 years. 

“WMEAC was all-volunteer for over half of its existence,” says WMEAC Executive Director Bill Wood. “Several of our earlier Executive Directors were volunteers …. WMEAC was conceived by regular folks who saw that the environment was being overlooked (or worse) by folks in Lansing and that average citizens needed a voice in the way that our state was being managed with regard to its natural resources.”

Though WMEAC now employs seven paid staff members, “Volunteers are still critical to what we do, from Board members to committee participants to our interns,” adds Wood. These volunteers assist with everything from participating in the hiring process of new employees, fundraising, policy work, environmental education, and waste reduction events like the annual Mayor’s Cleanup of the Grand River.

“On the day of the cleanup in 2018, we approached 1500 volunteers to help pull trash from the Grand River,” says Wood. “This sense of volunteering and giving back is what makes managing a nonprofit like WMEAC in Grand Rapids so rewarding.”

The West Michigan region continues to showcase a commitment to volunteerism. And regardless of the cause, area nonprofits are encouraging you to get involved. If only for an hour, volunteering has exponential benefits to both the people and organizations you are serving, and for yourself. So don’t hesitate.
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