Volunteer work is sometimes perceived as something that only retired people have time to do. And there’s certainly some truth to that, as the demands of making a living take up a lot of our waking hours. But even the most stressed of us will usually admit that when there is something that we really want to do, we’ll manage somehow to make that time.
But it may not be a lot of time. And that’s where UlsterCorps comes in. The countywide resource that serves as a central hub to connect volunteers with the local agencies that need them fills a unique niche. In addition to the long-term opportunities toward which they steer people, there are single-day activities.
“If somebody doesn’t want to make a long-term commitment, but has a few hours on a weekend, they can go to our website and see if there’s something that calls to them,” says Beth McLendon, co-founder and director of UlsterCorps. “People have busy lives, so maybe they can’t do it all the time; but we try to make it easy for people who might have time once a month or once a week. Hopefully that works out well, and it makes them want to volunteer again. But if it doesn’t, they can try something a little different.”
And for the person who wants to volunteer but doesn’t know quite what it is that he or she wants to do, “UlsterCorps is that place to get started,” says McLendon. She and several others came up with the idea six years ago. “A few of us started this in 2009, when we had some friends who had never volunteered before. They were really frustrated; struggling to find a way to volunteer. They spent hours researching something, and then the agency they called didn’t call them back. The agencies are all so busy and the staffs are working so hard, they don’t always have time to do outreach.”
Seeing the need to make volunteering more accessible, McLendon and co-founders Nancy Pompeo and Rik Flynn met with Michael Berg, director of Family of Woodstock, as well as the heads of other agencies, and asked, “Do you think there’s a need for this?” The response was positive, and in the years since, UlsterCorps has brought together thousands of people with local organizations that provide food, clothing, shelter, emergency services, literacy training, mentoring, child and elder care, animal welfare and more.
UlsterCorps encourages people of all ages to consider the possibilities, and that includes youthful volunteers and families. “We believe that if young people start volunteering at an early age, they’ll continue for the rest of their lives,” McLendon says. “And many of our volunteers in this community are retired, and they do amazing things, and that’s fantastic; but so many places – food pantries, for example – need younger, strong bodies, too, to lift the heavy boxes and do the physical work.”
One of the projects that has been most rewarding for UlsterCorps is its collaboration with Family and the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association, she says. “We’ve been gleaning at local farms all summer long for our food pantry program, so that people get fresh local produce that would otherwise have been composted. The volunteers love that project; it’s such an immediate, fulfilling thing and you get exercise, you’re working on these beautiful farms, and it’s a great thing to do on the weekend. It’s an easy way to get involved, and it’s really fun.”
One recent group of 29 students from SUNY-New Paltz volunteered at Liberty View Farm in Clintondale recently. They were among 400 students who volunteered for “Make a Difference Day” at different sites around the county. “They picked out food for pantries, and some of the apples will be made into applesauce for Thanksgiving meals at the soup kitchens,” McLendon says. “The students enjoyed it, and it gets the word out about the businesses, too; we love to support local businesses that do so much for the community.”
The UlsterCorps website – www.ulstercorps.org – has an interactive map that makes it easy to zero in on volunteer opportunities close to home. The organization’s Facebook page also has information. “Or they can call us and we can just talk about what they’re interested in, and where in the county they live. We can find something that’s a match for them.”
First-time volunteers might be surprised at the range of other opportunities available. If a person just wants to help out at a fundraising festival for a few hours, or a 5K run, there are those things. There are educational positions at museums and cultural centers and mentoring activities in technology and literacy. UlsterCorps has collaborated with Harvesting a Lifetime, coordinating volunteers to record the stories of more than 70 seniors from around the county.
Some opportunities involve preparing for future need. A few Red Cross Shelter training sessions are coming up. “When a disaster strikes, there are so many people that want to help, but they don’t have any training,” McLendon says. “If you think you’d want to volunteer at a shelter, get the training now, so that you can be part of that response team when disaster strikes.”
The Red Cross training is free of charge, as is the Family of Woodstock hotline training that McLendon calls “one of the most amazing trainings” in which she has she participated. “It teaches you communication and listening skills and so many other things that will be useful to you in your own personal life, as well.”
Family will be starting a new text-counseling hotline soon, she adds, which will mean some upcoming training sessions for that. Family has had a telephone hotline for 45 years now, but teenagers today sometimes feel more comfortable texting than phoning; so if they’re in trouble or need to reach out, the idea is to provide communication on their terms.
UlsterCorps is founded on the conviction that volunteerism is central to sustaining healthy, resilient communities utilizing the diverse talents, interests and abilities of its residents. “And we really believe that the more responsibility you give volunteers, the more they will step up,” McLendon says. “The less engaged volunteers are, the more likely they are to step away. Agencies that invest in their volunteers are more likely to find people that are willing to make a commitment and be that incredibly valuable resource.”