I don’t believe anyone would argue with the statement that volunteering is a worthwhile act. I’d go so far as to say that it’s the sort of selfless act that benefits the giver as much as the recipient. As the Executive Director of 826LA, a nonprofit youth writing and tutoring organization that relies on volunteers to support our programs, I am grateful that I get to witness relationships between students and volunteers blossom every day.
Yet a National and Community Service study from 2015 ranked the Greater Los Angeles area 46th out of 51 of the largest urban regions in the nation in the percentage of residents who volunteer. Only 19.7% of the population in this region engaged in activities such as helping youth with homework, coaching, mentoring, and other support services. How can it be that such an undeniably rewarding activity is also so rare?
In Los Angeles, I frequently hear people cite traffic, the immense sprawl of our city, and the demands of their (paid) jobs. In a place where rent is so high that many people work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and where it can easily take two hours to cross town during rush hour, these are very real threats to the viability of volunteering.
The solution as I see it is teamwork between nonprofits and employers. When an individual gives us the gift of time, we need to support them. At 826LA, this means providing a range of flexible volunteering opportunities, ranging from one-time events like our annual Personal Statement Weekend to weekend workshops, to daily after-school tutoring. It also means providing proper, ongoing training for the 1,000+ volunteers who support the nearly 10,000 students we serve annually. Now that we have four locations — in Mar Vista, Echo Park, and at two Writers’ Rooms on the campus of high schools in Boyle Heights and South LA — it’s easier for volunteers to get to our students.
At these locations, volunteers sit side by side with youth aged 6–18 and provide free help with writing assignments that range from personal statement essays for college to fantastical stories about flying tacos. We work to inspire young people to use their creativity and tell stories that matter to them. We believe that young people have important stories to tell and that their voices truly matter. With help from caring adults from all walks of life, they build confidence and accomplish great things.
We’re grateful for partnerships with companies like the design firm TeamOne, that value community service and make it possible for their employees to help with our Field Trip program during work hours. We need more companies to follow this example and make time for their employees to engage when their help is needed most, and not just for one-off opportunities like a weekend clean-up day. Those types of events are important too, but the daily, daytime needs in classrooms and communities are massive and ongoing
Whenever an individual says they want to support 826LA, we’re happy to put them to work — helping with programs, designing books, serving on our board, or raising funds via special events. But we need the corporate sector to heed this call to action as well. Giving employees the chance to volunteer is an investment in your workforce and your community.
Ample studies have proven the long-term effects of one-on-one attention, but you’ll experience an immediate return on investment in the faces of students who rarely receive the kind of individualized attention that a volunteer can provide. As a former teacher who benefitted from 826’s presence in my classroom, I can assure you that you’ll see the excitement in teachers’ faces, too, when they see students receiving the help that just isn’t available when adult-to-student ratios are high.
At 826LA alone we benefit from at least $600,000 a year in pro-bono support. Nationwide, volunteers donate 7.9 billion hours of service or the equivalent of $184 billion (source: Corporation for National Community Service). I believe our local, state, and federal governments and corporations can and should do more to incentivize this generous help. What if tax breaks were issued to volunteers for their time? What if companies gave gift cards for food, coffee, or gas to volunteers with proven track records? It would send a powerful message: that we appreciate the vital work that volunteers perform, and that we believe in supporting communities with the greatest needs.
Help 826LA celebrate our amazing volunteers by attending our annual event, Tell Me a Story which features Jackson Browne this year and other special guests. More information can be found here: http://www.826LA.org/tellmeastory