In These Shoes – A realization on volunteerism

by Jennifer Archer

Fast forward to March 13, the shoes are still sitting in the box collecting dust and I’m pulled last minute into a meeting. Based on schools closing, United Way was asked that morning to coordinate volunteers to help hand out meals at 17 distribution sites around the city and to organize and staff small builds to pack weekend snack packs, beginning the following Tuesday. Which meant we needed to come up with and execute a sign-up process, recruit and deploy enough volunteers to fill about 150 shifts a week for as long as needed.
As I’m writing this on June 18, we are still coordinating volunteers for distribution sites (24 currently), building meal packs of which we have now built 42,000+, and have deployed more than 800 volunteers to fill different needs around the community – to the tune of more than 8,000 hours of service.
But back to those shoes. On March 17 the shoes finally left the box. They became part of my daily uniform – it’s been my United We’re Strong shirt and these “fun” shoes, usually four days a week, scheduling and working with volunteers, moving boxes, packing meal kits, doing good. Much like many of us when Covid-19 hit our lives, my days took an unexpected turn – and my shoes found a different path than I had planned. I began a new journey and found new inspiration.

In “normal” times if you and I had a conversation about the importance of being a volunteer from a United Way perspective, we could have chatted about how volunteering at one of our funded partners would bring you closer to the work that we do. If you were an employer, I’d talk about the impact of promoting volunteerism and how that plays into employee morale and job satisfaction. In these shoes, and in this moment I’ve seen how it’s much more than that.
Over the past few months I have had so many conversations with volunteers about what they’ve experienced when handing out meals and how it’s changed their perspective on community needs. I’ve learned about some of their personal challenges during isolation, and the different reasons that they volunteer. I’ve seen depth to relationships grow between the repeat and new volunteers as they spend time together (masks and all) working toward a common goal of making things better for total strangers.
My favorite realization from these now well-worn shoes? Understanding the light I see in the eyes of these volunteers, their commitment to volunteering repeatedly, re-purposing of their lunch hour/work out/coffee break – I’ve seen HOPE. Hundreds of individuals have “run” full force into this space, to fill this need for literally thousands of hours of service and to show up in a time that we’ve been told to stay home, because they know their time matters, they know there is a critical need, and they know that by being a hero of sorts they can give others as well as themselves hope that we will make it through this – together.
My ask to you after reading this? Consider donning your own cape of sorts and find a couple of hours in your day that you can reimagine, to join us as a “lunch hour hero”. What does that mean? Commit to shifting what you do on your lunch hour (or coffee break or workout) and take a shift to help make a difference in our community. It doesn’t take much, but it means the world to many. Start to change our community for the good through one simple action – it can start with you.
Here’s to having hope, being inspired, making a difference (and maybe learning to run, now that I’ve re-purposed these shoes.)

Jennifer Archer, is the Senior Director Communications and Engagement for United Way of Greater Toledo

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