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Lifelong Learning: Pandemic, Almeda fire have impact on volunteers

Volunteerism is an overlooked source of learning. Those who work in community service without financial benefit would agree that the experience provides many lessons, including new insights, new relationships, new skills.

The twin 2020 disasters of COVID-19 and the Almeda fire reveal what volunteering means to the individuals who contribute their time and talent, as well as the nonprofits they support.

This article focuses on retirees who volunteer for educational, cultural and social services organizations, but there is an army of Rogue Valley residents of all ages engaged in contributing to hundreds of worthy causes. There’s a lesson for all in what these volunteers do.

When COVID-19 shuttered businesses and idled large numbers of working adults in mid-March, it created another kind of job loss among retirees. Literally thousands of unpaid contributors to the local quality of life in the three aforementioned realms were left “unemployed” virtually overnight. Added to the effects of the pandemic on health and finances, the loss of meaningful endeavors has had significant impact on those whose identity, purpose, stimulation and connections were linked to their volunteer roles.

The sudden “job loss” was keenly felt at OLLI at SOU, whose daytime classes and events primarily serve retirees. Pauline Black, OLLI’s volunteer coordinator, tracks the work of over 650 volunteers and seeks meaningful roles for those among OLLI’s 2,100-plus members.

“Before March 16, volunteers were readying renovated classrooms on the Ashland campus,” she reports. “Instructors were finalizing over 100 peer-taught courses for spring. Others were coordinating a free, public open house scheduled for summer.

“When every planned activity abruptly stopped, many volunteers undertook new roles with little time to prepare — teaching remotely and providing remote tech support and outreach to isolated members.”

Countless volunteers for OLLI’s educational partners — AAUW, Ashland YMCA, Friends of Hannon Library, Oregon State University Extension, Jackson County Library Services, Rogue Valley Genealogy Library, ScienceWorks, Soroptimists and Southern Oregon University Foundation — have similar stories.

“Our volunteers were busy shelving books and helping with storytimes and community lectures,” says Jessica Arenas, volunteer coordinator for about 200 volunteers who serve Jackson County Library Services. “Then we had to temporarily close the libraries. Even as we have reopened, it is not yet possible to maintain the physical distancing needed to ensure volunteer safety.”

Dan Crocker, CEO of the Ashland YMCA, speaks of the educational aspect of their many-pronged support for community wellbeing.

“Coaches for contact sports have not been able to serve,” he says. “On the other hand, we were able to provide child care for front-line workers, which has created new volunteer roles.”

OLLI’s cultural nonprofit partners have been deeply impacted. Volunteers for performing arts organizations and the organizations themselves wonder when or if live audiences will become possible. Oregon Shakespeare Festival alone benefitted from over 700 volunteers who directly supported theater operations and another 180 who volunteered for the Tudor Guild Gift Shop.

Scores more individuals were supporting Ashland Independent Film Festival, Ashland New Plays Festival, Camelot Theatre, Chamber Music Concerts, Jefferson Public Radio, Rogue Valley Symphony, Schneider Art Museum, Siskiyou Singers and Southern Oregon Repertory Singers.

In the social services realm, OLLI’s partners at AARP, Ashland At Home, Ashland Senior Services Division, League of Women Voters, Rogue Valley Council of Governments had to suspend volunteer jobs that involved in-person contact at a time when their services were most needed. For example, pre-COVID, Community Volunteer Network coordinated the activities of more than 500 age 55-plus volunteers who supported about 40 nonprofits.

The depth of volunteer commitment to the causes they support and the benefits they personally derive has driven many adaptations. Zoom has helped preserve volunteerism, but it has required learning new skills. OLLI instructors faced this challenge in presenting the entire fall curriculum of 107 courses digitally. Performing arts organizations have migrated to digital performances. Boards of nonprofits are meeting online.

Those employed at nonprofits feel the loss of their volunteers in personal terms, however.

Editor’s note: This series, sponsored by Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University, offers exploration of knowledge and skills for adults living in the Rogue Valley.

“The libraries don’t feel the same without our volunteers. They have become friends,” Arenas says. “Their dedication to our mission reinforces our belief in the importance of literacy.”

Just when nonprofits were figuring out ways to safely resume some operations, the Almeda fire left a path of unimaginable devastation in human and economic terms. In its aftermath, the human need to “do something” has been amply illustrated.

The organizational resources of many of the nonprofits listed above have proved useful. OSF, for example, has been seeking volunteers to provide bilingual translation, document filing, sanitation assistance, and supply sorting. The Ashland YMCA utilized volunteers to quickly outfit housing for several families who lost their homes and has provided temporary memberships for those needing showers and smoke-free air. The computers and internet services of the libraries have been invaluable for those who lost their homes.

However, for retirees who may be most vulnerable to COVID, in-person support for those affected by the fires remains risky.

While not all volunteers will be able to return to their previous roles when in-person service becomes possible, the connections and meaning that they value will continue to motivate volunteerism, even if roles need to change.

This altruism addresses one of the key questions at the heart of government policies: Why would anyone work if they didn’t “have to?”

We only need to look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for an answer. Beyond basic physiological and safety requirements, volunteerism addresses the human need for belonging, self-actualization and transcendence. It’s an important lesson.

Anne Bellegia, a former marketer of health care products, volunteers on the OLLI Communications and Community Outreach Committee. She can be reached at annebellegia@mac.com.

Social-distancing restrictions during the pandemic have created obstacles for Jackson County Library Services volunteers such as storytime readers. Submitted photo