January 22, 2020

Do Good, Feel Better  

The instant gratification — and incentive — of volunteering
By Al Parker | June 23, 2018

If it’s Wednesday between 9 am and 1 pm, you’ll find Dave Amos (pictured) helping out in the emergency department at Munson Medical Center.

Some weeks, you might find him serving as a volunteer docent, leading informative hikes for the Leelanau Conservancy or making time to actively support an election reform group.

Amos worked for Ford Motor Company for 28 years before moving to Leelanau County in 2007. He sees his varied volunteer efforts as absolutely vital to his active retiree lifestyle.

“It’s my favorite four hours of the week,” said the 69-year-old about his time at Munson. “I absolutely think it improves your health.  For me it’s very gratifying. I walk a lot, and I get many miles in during my four hours.”

That attitude tracks with emerging science about how volunteering relates to health. A recent study of 2,705 volunteers aged 18 and older from United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch found that 75 percent of those who volunteered in the past 12 months said volunteering made them feel physically healthier.

“Physical health is one thing, but it even improves their mental health,” explained Sue Bauer, volunteer coordinator at the Father Fred Foundation in Traverse City. “The average age of our volunteers is about 76 years old. We had one volunteer who just retired from us at 93 and he was working two days a week.  Volunteers have a real sense of camaraderie, of feeling needed. It gives them something to look forward to.”

Volunteers are the backbone of the Father Fred Foundation, where 260 active volunteers provided more than 26,000 hours of service last year. In addition, community volunteers pitch in to help at the Frostbite and Fall Food Drives, two garage sale fundraisers and Toys for Tots.  That cadre of 350 volunteers contributed more than 3,250 hours.

“We don’t have our doors open without the volunteers,” said Bauer.

In the emergency department, Amos keeps busy helping patients, running errands and doing many non-medical things, like helping to move a bed or getting a blanket. If a patient has visitors, he may help them in some way. “When you retire, it’s a good idea to get out in the public,” he said.

A much larger study — involving more than 64,000 subjects ages 60 and older — suggests that volunteering slows the cognitive decline of aging. Using University of Michigan data, assistant economics professor Sumedha Gupta found that a person who volunteered 100 hours a year scored about 6 percent higher in cognitive testing than a non-volunteer.

“The effect is significant. It’s consistent,” wrote Dr. Gupta. “If you keep everything else constant by putting in all these controls and following this individual over time, we find that as people volunteer, their cognitive health scores improve. If they don’t volunteer, their cognitive scores decline faster.”

Dr. Gupta’s advice to seniors is that if they are well enough, they should consider volunteering. And if they are already volunteering, they should consider devoting more time each week. The data showed cognitive benefits with as little as two to two-and-a-half hours weekly.

Theresa Stachnik heads up volunteer services at Munson Medical Center, which relies on some 350 active volunteers throughout the hospital. 

“Volunteering keeps you healthy,” said Stachnik. “Sometimes people with too much free time on their hands can get into trouble. It really does keep you healthy.”

Stachnik has been at the hospital for 25 years and has seen changes in volunteering, especially in recruiting and the scrutiny of potential volunteers.  “Recruiting has gotten tougher,” she explained. “There is more competition for volunteers than ever before. People tend to volunteer where their passion is.  And now almost every (agency) runs a background check on volunteers. “

So with that competition, are agencies offering “volunteer bonuses” or other perks?

“No, not at Munson,” said Stachnik, who also serves as president of the Northern Michigan Association of Volunteer Administrators, a collaborative network of volunteer coordinators who meet monthly to develop new and better ways to work with volunteers. NMAVA share ideas and experiences, working to provide their volunteers with enjoyable experiences.

Munson does hold an annual appreciation luncheon for its volunteers each April, during National Volunteer Month. This year’s luncheon had an RSVP total of 200, but the event was set for the same April weekend that a late winter snow storm hit northern Michigan. “We ended up having 65 people,” recalled Stachnik.

On the other hand, Bauer doesn’t feel there is competition among agencies who rely on volunteers.  “I don’t believe in that,” she said. “We have people who have different interests. Someone who wasn’t a good fit with us, might be a great fit for another agency.”

Bauer does detect a difference in volunteers now, compared to previous years. “As our volunteers age out, those who replace them have a different attitude,” she said. “Before volunteers would stay 20 years with us. Now they stay three or four years and move on.”

With that steady turnover, the Father Fred Foundation, like most agencies that rely on volunteers, is always looking for help. Currently they need people who can help pick up furniture.  For more info, contact Bauer at (231) 947-2055.

According to NMAVA data, the Grand Traverse five-county region has some 11,000 volunteers who provided more than 354,000 hours of service to 44 organizations in 1917.

Munson Medical Center relies on some 75,000 hours of volunteer help each year, according to Stachnik. “Volunteering is a really big deal,” she said. “Nationally the value [of a volunteer] is set at $24 an hour, so with 75,000 hours, that’s a lot of value.”

The Cherry Fest Wants YOU!
Ready to feel absolutely fabulous immediately? Head on over to the National Cherry Festival’s Volunteer Portal (find it under the Get Involved tab at CherryFestival.org) and pick your Ambassador position. You’ll find an awesome assortment of opportunities, each with a description, date, time slot, and — if you want to volunteer with a pal — how many spots remain open per position. Some of the fun jobs still available at press time:
Beer Tent Security and ID Checker
Adult Beach Volleyball (registration/event help)
Bike Valet
Roving Pin Seller
Festival Set-up Folks
Front of House (ushers, greeters, etc.), Bayside Concert Stage


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