A vicious cycle

Why Nevada ranks 50th in the nation for volunteering

“Grandma” Marilyn Barker overseesstudents during summer school.

“Grandma” Marilyn Barker overseesstudents during summer school.

Photo by Kat Kerlin

Want to volunteer but not sure where to start? These online resources will run a search of volunteer opportunities based on your zip code: http:// nevadavolunteers.volunteermatch.org or www.rei.com/aboutrei/volunteer/html.
Learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern Nevada by calling 352-3202 or visiting www.bbbsnn.org.
Find out more about Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful by calling 851-5185 or visiting www.ktmb.org.

Over the past 15 years, “Grandma” Marilyn Barker has volunteered in the local drug courts, in a foster home for teens, and at the Boys and Girls Club where she taught sewing. Now she volunteers with the Foster Grandparent program, tutoring elementary school children at High Desert Montessori.

“I’m going to be 80 next June, so it keeps me younger,” she says of volunteering. “I love it. It’s invigorating. Watching them grow and learn new skills—it’s very rewarding to be part of that.”

If a new report is to be believed, Barker is a rarity in Nevada. The state ranked 50th among 50 states and Washington, D.C., in “Volunteering in America 2010,” released by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Only New York ranked lower. One notable factor in the report: “States with higher unemployment rates were more likely to have lower volunteering rates.” And this: “Among America’s 51 largest metro areas, those with higher rates of foreclosures were more likely to have lower rates of volunteering.” Nevada leads the nation in both unemployment and foreclosures.

“There’s a real correlation between volunteerism and a lot of poor social outcomes,” says Pat Fling, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern Nevada. “We know Nevada has very low rates of graduation, very high rates of teen pregnancy … if you’re having all of these social problems, it makes sense you’ll have less volunteers. And, conversely, if you’re doing more volunteering, you’re less inclined to do more negative behaviors. It’s a chicken and egg kind of thing.”

So when Nevada needs volunteers the most, there are fewer to be found.

Fling says BBBSNN has seen a huge increase in volunteers over the past nine years, but that’s slowed down since the recession began. “They’ve lost their job or are in fear of losing their job and because of that, it’s harder for people to plan ahead.” And increased transience caused by the recession is also detrimental to volunteerism. “If people are coming and going, they’re less committed to their community and less likely to volunteer.”

However, executive director of Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful Christi Cakiroglu says her group hasn’t faced a downturn in volunteers at all. “We work with over 2,000 volunteers every year, and that’s remained consistent,” she says. The nonprofit uses volunteers for events such as clean-ups and Christmas tree recycling. Her theory for Nevada’s low volunteer ranking: “Blame Las Vegas.” High turnover in Vegas’ residents and longer commute times may provide less incentive and time for people to volunteer, she muses.

Time can be a barrier for anyone thinking of volunteering, but both Fling and Cakiroglu say it shouldn’t be. Volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters typically means a one-hour lunch with a child once a week.

“I think for a long time, volunteerism was equated with giving your life away, like you’d have to set aside eight hours a week or something,” says Cakiroglu. “They can volunteer for a couple hours once a month or once a year.” She says volunteering is also a great way to spend time with your kids.

“You can go and sort food with your child, go pick up a park with your child, plant a tree with your child,” says Cakiroglu. “Kids love stuff like that. And it gives them a good lesson about community pride and civic engagement and how we all need to work together to keep our community a great place.”