Hurricane Sandy Anniversary a Reminder of the Power of Volunteers

It’s National Volunteer Week. Six months after Sandy, Jill Iscol on what volunteers meant to the recovery.

Courtesy of Camp Bulldog

Is volunteer work worth less than paid work? My answer is no. Volunteers roll up their sleeves every day to make New York a stronger and better place to live.

If you want something done when the going gets tough, ask a volunteer. Earlier this month, I traveled to the south shore of Long Island to talk with some of the volunteers who put self-interest aside as Hurricane Sandy devastated communities and destroyed homes.

What did they do during and after the storm? Without fanfare they fed those who were hungry, clothed those whose possessions were swept away, and provided a physical and emotional safe harbor for those whose lives were turned upside down.

In Lindenhurst I spoke with Andrea Curran of Camp Bulldog. She and other volunteers sacrificed thousands of hours, creating a free resource center for any Lindenhurst citizen in need. No questions asked.

Volunteering isn’t about charity; it’s about investment. Volunteers make us all wealthier. Research by Independent Sector estimates the average value of a volunteer’s time is equivalent to $22.14 an hour of paid labor.

The roughly 65 million Americans who volunteer every year come from all walks of life. Their 7.9 billion unpaid hours of community service saves us $171 billion annually. In 2011, 3.22 million New Yorkers volunteered more than 413 million hours of unpaid service, which saved us $9 billion.

Putting a dollar amount on the value volunteers give back to our communities, however, doesn’t begin to capture their importance. Easing human suffering, in the words of Diana O’Neill, executive director of the Long Island Regional Volunteer Center, can’t be measured in dollars and cents alone.

Clare, Lisa, Dorothy, and Tom traveled to Long Island from St. Louis as AmeriCorps volunteers to muck out basements and rebuild homes. Jess Van Ness of Nechama and Dylan Becker of All Hands Volunteers have worked around the clock without any expectation of personal reward. Kim Skiller started Neighbors Supporting Neighbors while working full time as a school administrator. Busy citizens Pat Moynihan and Laura Messano give selflessly to the Volunteer Center because they care about their community.

Gwen O’Shea, chief executive officer and president of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, defines this work as “giving voice to the voiceless.” Is giving voice to the voiceless worth less than other work?

Volunteers make New York—and the nation—stronger, more resilient, and a better place to live for us all. New York State’s Volunteer Generation Program, led by Mark Walter and including 10 regional centers, is a huge success. An additional $10 million in volunteer generation funding was included in President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo completely understands the value of volunteers. “Without their hard work Sandy’s devastating effects would have been far, far worse,” he says. “Volunteering is part of New York’s life blood.”

When I look back on my life as a volunteer, there is not one minute I think was wasted or unimportant. On the contrary, I feel privileged to stand shoulder to shoulder with other volunteers. I am particularly humbled by the selflessness of those who rally to the front lines to lend a helping hand when disaster strikes and give voice to the voiceless every day of the year, every year.