A Publication of WTVP

Volunteerism is something with which we’re all familiar. Most of us have helped ease the load on our fellow citizens at one time or another. There have always been and will always be people in need of help, and as long as there are people in need, there will be volunteers. Peoria is one of those great communities made up of civic-minded people who desire to help make their town a better place and improve the quality of life for all.

According to Volunteering in America—a website by the Corporation for National and Community Service which gives citizens access to volunteering trends, statistics, tools, resources and information for the nation, U.S. regions, states and major cities—Peoria had an average volunteer rate of 30.7 percent from 2004 to 2007. Per resident, Peorians volunteered an average of 31.1 service hours annually, contributing to the Midwest’s ranking as the No. 1 region in the United States in terms of volunteerism. 31.1 percent of Midwesterners volunteered in 2007—a considerably higher number than the national average of 26.2 percent, and even topping the State of Illinois’ 28 percent.

In a message on the website, Corporation for National and Community Service CEO David Eisner said, “America’s nearly 61 million volunteers are an engine that powers thousands of nonprofit, community and faith-based organizations across the nation…They’re tackling our society’s toughest challenges— the 37 million Americans, including 13 million children, who live in poverty, the 3.5 million Americans who have no place to live, the more than 50 percent of high school students in our largest cities who leave school before graduation, the more than 600,000 prisoners released into their communities annually without sufficient support, and the hundreds of communities nationwide that suffer natural disasters.”

The volunteers of which Eisner speaks, whether working as part of an organization or not, are instrumental in making their communities, including Peoria, better places in which to live, work and play.

The Peoria area is home to a wide array of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping central Illinois prosper. In speaking with people from a variety of those groups, we learned just how important volunteers are in Peoria.

Catholic Charities
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria is one of the biggest and most varied organizations with which one can volunteer. While most organizations have someone on staff who coordinates volunteers, Catholic Charities is so large and relies so much on volunteers that they have a staff member whose only job is to work with those who wish to serve. Sue Hirschman, the volunteer/intern resource coordinator, told us that she is responsible for making sure volunteers understand the organization’s mission and giving them service opportunities that are a good fit for all involved. With about 2,500 volunteers each year, that’s a big job!

“We offer so many different opportunities for people, and it’s all wrapped and tied around our faith-based, mission-driven, gospel-related calling that a lot of people are drawn to,” Hirschman said. She also noted another benefit of being such a big organization: Catholic Charities can offer large groups a chance to serve together as teams, in addition to placing individuals with service opportunities.

Prairie State Legal Services
Lisa Wilson, managing attorney of the Peoria office of Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS), said, “Our mission is to provide free legal services to low-income individuals and families with civil matters so that their legal rights are protected. We advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable individuals in our society so that they have a voice.”

With approximately 100 volunteer attorneys each year and up to three interns each semester and during the summer, PSLS is able to carry out their mission in the River City. “The use of volunteer attorneys is critical in meeting our mission, as our office is unable to handle the volume of clients without assistance from the private attorneys in our legal community,” Wilson said.

Common Place
Connie Voss, executive director of Common Place, a social service agency on Peoria’s south side that helps people overcome poverty and injustice through education, asserts that volunteerism is an integral part of the organization. “I can’t imagine that we’d have our programs without our volunteers,” she said. Throughout its 30 years of adult literacy programs, Common Place has always been strong in terms of volunteerism. 70 to 80 volunteers are trained to work one-on-one with adult learners for the adult literacy program alone, reported Voss. Because participants learn community service and the importance of giving back, many of their learners come back as volunteers.

Change isn’t something which happens overnight or by itself. It happens because individual citizens see a need and strive to fill it, to better their neighborhood, town, state, region, nation and world. Much of this change happens in the small, everyday acts of charity and kindness made by individuals—people like you and me—who are determined to “serve goals larger than ourselves” and leave this world in a better condition than we found it. As witnessed by the data and firsthand experience, we all are making a difference we can be proud of. iBi