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By Michael Boyd Jr
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
As the Ste. Genevieve County Fair has now passed and Jour de Fete approaches, the issue of volunteers has come to the forefront. Both events rely heavily on volunteers – something that is becoming increasingly harder to find.
But, let’s be honest. Getting and keeping volunteers has always been a difficult chore for any nonprofit organization, no matter what.
For decades now, volunteering in the United States has been declining, even in the “Volunteer State” of Tennessee.
According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau and Americorps survey, the rate of volunteers has dropped another 7% between 2019 to 2021.
The reasons vary from event to event, but two things keep coming up: either people feel they are too busy to help, or are frustrated after volunteering for an event.
Jamie Inman, committee president for the Jour de Fete, says that they have been “lucky” to have volunteers, but she also has heard from several others of the problem in getting much needed help.
“Right now, our organization is pretty good,” Inman said, “but I know that all the other nonprofits are having issues.
“I’ve been the president for 12 years. We finally have our board full, so that’s an added bonus. It’s always been hard to find people to donate their time. We get help from the Boy Scouts, and St. Agnes School is helping this year. (Michael) “Buck” Jokerst helps, my brothers help out.”
The Ste. Genevieve Volunteer Fire Department, as its name indicates, is made up of volunteers. Chief Kenny Steiger struggles to keep a full roster of firefighters.
“The manpower issue is one with no perfect answers,” he said during a ceremony marking the department’s 125th anniversary in 2019. “It is a national trend; it is getting harder and harder to find volunteers.”
Unfortunately, that trend has continued into the 2020s.
The trend has also affected Operation Christmas Child, a program, under the auspices of Samaritan’s Purse, which sends shoeboxes of toys, hygiene products and things children here take for granted like notebook paper, pencils, pencil sharpeners and magic markers, to needy children around the world – often in war-torn regions.
Last fall, longtime local coordinator Becky Cooper expressed concern about the program’s future. Cooper served as collection center coordinator at Hope Church for several years, was no longer able to make that commitment. Hassler stepped into the role three years ago. However, she and her husband, former Mayor Paul Hassler, retired and moved from the area this spring.
“No one is jumping up to step in,” Hassler said last fall. (New Offenburg Baptist Church will be taking over as the local distribution site this fall.)
Cooper isn’t sure the problem is necessarily worse than it has been in the past.
“Is it any worse now than it ever has been? Probably not,” she said. “In churches, for example, you have the typical 80-20 split were 20% of the congregation does 80% of the work. That’s historical.”
The Ste. Genevieve County Commission appoints numerous volunteer boards and also has its collective ear to the ground, keeping up with local trends.
“It’s hard to fill positions that are paid, much less ones that require people to donate their time,” Presiding Commissioner Randy Ruzicka said.
“Charitable organizations are having more and more issues,” Second District Commissioner Mark Marberry said. “They’re having a terrible time getting and retaining members.”
“I know, even with my own church, it’s the same six or eight people that are doing what they do for the last 30 or 40 years and they’re getting tired and it’s hard to get folks engaged,” Ruzicka said. “I don’t know if it’s a societal thing, but it’s definitely an issue.”
Marberry noted that veterans’ organizations are having the same issue.
“The VFW has their burger night and most of the guys working it are Vietnam vets,” Ruzicka said. “They’re all 70-plus; they’re getting tired.”
“A lot of them, because of health issues can’t, but there’s nobody to replace them,” Associate Clerk Michele Gatzemeyer said.
“Nobody wants to do it,” Ruzicka said. “They say, ‘I’m done,’ but then they’re back in there doing it because there’s nobody else that wants to do it.”
“Jour de Fete is always looking for people to help,” Inman said. “We have a pretty good crew right now. We’re lucky. We don’t have a lot of young people helping out with Jour de Fete other than the Boy Scout troops, but we give them a donation to help us. So, it’s a little bit different.”
Inman says the Kinsey Fire Department also volunteers time.
Inman added that the Jour de Fete could still use a few regular people to help out and do some things.
WHY A SHORTAGE?
The cause of the drop in volunteerism is troubling.
Some have trouble with long-term commitments as well, while others just feel like they are just there standing around and have no idea what is actually going on due to lack of communication with the organization they are volunteering with.
“I think the difficulties days may stem from COVID,” Cooper said. “It sort of put everybody on the back foot and made people be really weary about being in public spaces and around people.”
Kenny Williams, longtime board member for the county fair and organizer of a monthly community men’s prayer breakfast, thinks part of the problem may be with the organizations, rather than the volunteers.
“The challenge is when they don’t have good communication between the leaders and the workers,” he said. “That’s what aggravates the volunteers. It’s the most talked about thing that I’ve found out because the workers are left in the dark on what’s actually going on and don’t have proper instruction or even training.”
Williams continued, mentioning providing the necessary equipment such as providing radios for faster communication as an example.
“I think it would be easy to build a network of volunteers if leaders understood what needs to be done so volunteers are not so frustrated,” he said.
Cooper also outlined steps she feels help in recruiting volunteers.
“In terms of trying to attract volunteers to something you’re involved in, I think it depends on, A., the project, B., the leadership, C., how you approach people and ask to be volunteers,” she said. “If you ask in a ho-hum manner, you’re going to get a real ho-hum response. The person asking has to be passionate about it. You have to give people a reason to want to volunteer.
“With Operation Christmas Child, you’re participating in the Great Commission out of Matthew 28, in terms of going into the world and making disciples and teaching people about Jesus. Because most of us will never be able to do this personally, we can do a shoebox. Plus not only are you sharing the Gospel, you are showing people around the world that there are caring individuals out there – people who care enough to fill up a shoebox thoughtfully and pray over them before they go. I think it depends on how you ask them.”
One factor that organizations hear about are that volunteers feel they are not making a meaningful and purposeful impact, or that volunteers may be unable to predict their commitment levels in the future.
Younger volunteers are often motivated to get community service hours for school, while older volunteers with professional jobs and more experiences are looking for personal fulfillment.
All the local nonprofit organizations are looking for more volunteers. If interested, contact Ste. Genevieve City Hall at 573-883-5400 or the Ste. Genevieve County Commissioners at 573-883-5589, ext. 2 during business hours. They should e able to put you in touch with organizations needing help.