||As economy booms, volunteers
By TERESA MALCOLM
A booming U.S. economy and increasing competition among lay mission programs mean that the pool of Catholic volunteers is spread thin, say experts in the field, who are looking for new recruits beyond the usual target of Catholic college students.
The drop in prospective volunteers is definitely a widespread trend, said Margaret Weeks, membership and recruitment coordinator for the Catholic Network of Volunteer Services. Both small and large programs across the board are experiencing really low numbers.
The volunteer shortage became known in recent months when the Jesuit Volunteer Corps announced it was closing houses in Oregon -- two of its three Portland houses and one in Medford. Former communities in Boise, Idaho, and Seattle also did not open this summer, and another in Yakima, Wash., closed last year.
Volunteerism has traditionally risen with a weak economy. In a yearlong volunteer program, recent college graduates are able to be hired for work they wouldnt find in a tight job market and gain professional experience, Weeks said. But with the current strong economy, people get these jobs more easily and so are less apt to volunteer, she said.
Paul Cavanaugh, director of the Vincentian Service Corps East, agreed. Theres a core group who have been involved in service a long time, but theres another group that only starts to explore this option as theyre leaving college, he said. But if jobs are available, they dont get past that first idea.
Collecting hard data
A task force on the problem has been established by the Catholic Network of Volunteer Services, an organization based in Washington that acts as a clearinghouse for short- and long-term volunteer opportunities in the United States and throughout the world. The network formed the task force in response to reports from its member programs of a decline in volunteers.
Weeks, who is leading the task force, said they are in the process of collecting hard data to back up the anecdotal accounts of unstaffed programs.
Jim Lindsay, executive director of the network, said that the organizations list of urgent needs illustrated the troubles programs have encountered this year. Normally only two or three programs are on the urgency list, he said. This past year, all throughout the summer at least 20 programs were on the list seeking volunteers for the fall at that late date.
One problem the task force has discussed is the competition among faith-based programs and also with secular programs such as Americorps for the limited pool of potential volunteers.
Cavanaugh, a member of the networks task force, said he does not see a tremendous overlap between secular and faith-based programs. He also noted the Vincentian Service Corps cooperates with Americorps, allowing its volunteers to be eligible for Americorps Education Only Award, in which the volunteer gets a grant of $4,750 to pay tuition or an education loan.
Renée King, 23, considered serving in Americorps but was drawn to the community life of the Vincentian Service Corps. Unlike many of the Americorps programs she considered, you are not placed alone in the Vincentian Service Corps, she said. They provide support, not only through the Vincentian order, but also they give you support staff in the community you live in.
When she graduated from the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J., King accepted a yearlong commitment with the Vincentians working in Philadelphia at a womens shelter. She is the first person at the college, run by the Sisters of Charity, to go into a Vincentian volunteer program.
Cavanaugh also said that the numbers of Catholic lay volunteer programs have surged in this decade. He said that the faith-based programs share recruiting information so theres a lot of recruiting in the same places. We need to reach out to a wider variety of people than weve done before.
Traditionally the focus of recruiting has been students graduating from Catholic colleges and universities, but the task force determined that faith-based programs need to branch out to community colleges and state and nonsectarian private schools, as well as looking beyond those who are 20 to 30 years old.
The Ignatian Lay Volunteer Corps is a program that has met success focusing on retired adults instead of graduating students. Begun four years ago by Jesuit Frs. Jim Conroy and Charles Costello in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, the program is open to men and women in their 50s to their 70s. According to the programs codirector, Barbara Castellano, older adults continue to live in their own homes but have the experience of a faith-based community by meeting with other volunteers for reflection on the meaning of their work, their joys, frustrations.
The program began with 11 volunteers in 1995 and now has 35. With the number currently in the application process, Castellano said they expect to have about 50 volunteers by the end of the year. The program has expanded to New York City and Syracuse, N.Y., and may open in Reading, Pa. An advisory board is looking into the possibility of taking the program nationwide.
We are absolutely delighted by the interest and experience of the volunteers, Castellano said. They bring professional work talents to agencies that couldnt afford to have someone of that caliber come on board with them.
Advocacy for the poor
For instance, she said one volunteer was a senior vice president with a Fortune 500 company and an attorney. He is now working with Catholic Charities, arranging legal advocacy for the poor, especially in legislative matters.
Costello, the programs 70-year-old cofounder, said they hope to develop post-service spiritual programs for their volunteers, offering them the opportunity to continue to reflect on their years service.
Id like to see volunteers develop their own Christian life communities, he said, to continue their spiritual growth and also be with other volunteers -- people of like mind and experience.
Recruiters stress the necessity of community support for those considering going into service. In reaching out to new groups, an important venue is the parish, Cavanaugh said. We need to really develop a sense of this as one of many natural choices for a member of the parish community.
Strong community support has proved effective on the college level, most notably at Notre Dame, which has a strong tradition of volunteerism, Weeks said. Notre Dame is such a breath of fresh air, she said, where recruiters are likely to encounter students who are stressed because they cant choose which program they want to go into.
Andrea Smith Chappell, director of senior transition programs at Notre Dames Center for Social Concerns, said that Notre Dame has shown no decline in students pursuing volunteer work after college. Many students are involved in service throughout their college years, and that whets their appetite for the work, Chappell said. Notre Dame students have also been able to arrange deferments with companies that hold a job for them while they volunteer in a one- or two-year program.
Entering such a program is not as strange a thing to do as it seems to a lot of people because at Notre Dame around 10 percent go on to work in volunteer programs, said Eric Giovanni, a Notre Dame graduate who is now with the Ursuline Companions in Mission.
Giovanni, 22, found volunteering to be a perfect outlet for his interest in criminal justice. With my interest in working with people in prisons, there werent hundreds of job opportunities presenting themselves, he said. He works with children in juvenile detention centers in St. Louis.
The call to serve the imprisoned runs deep in the Christian faith, he said. I just dont know that there is as strong a call for it in the secular world as in faith-based communities.
National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998