With only one in five people pitching in, our state ranks second to last.
THIS ISN’T BASEBALL. YOU DON’T throw curves or hit fastballs. And there’s only one kind of pitch: Pitching in.
You play this game in a field of dreams — broken dreams, sometimes. Or magnificent dreams come true on other occasions.
It’s called volunteering, and it’s a high-contact sport.
When you pitch in, volunteers say, you come in contact with need — people in need, a community in need, a need for something people may not even know they need.
Sometimes you raise money, or manage it or give it away on behalf of people in need. Sometimes you cook for them or feed them or teach them or hold them or put them on a horse when they suffer from a debilitating condition.
It isn’t easy, but frequently it’s something you’ve seen done before, by a parent or mentor you can’t forget.
“My grandmother was a teacher, and she voluntarily taught in a low-income area in Queens, New York. I spent many summers going with her and seeing how she interacted with children at the school — I guess it wore off on me,” explains Melissa Titus, the mother of two elementary school children in east Lee County. Mrs. Titus spends at least 25 hours a week helping children in the classrooms where her own children are learning and maturing, and has for the last four years — which amounts to a total of about 3,600 hours.
Christi Sarlow and Jan Fifer at Special Equestrians.
COURTESY PHOTOS What you discover, many volunteers say, is a remuneration that benefits the heart and mind, justifying the significant effort and sometimes noteworthy personal expense.
Volunteering, in other words, is good for you, and it feels good, too.
“I have read studies, and it’s true for me, that when you volunteer you’re happier and healthier. And when you volunteer more — when you become part of the world in a way that allows you to learn from everyone you meet — you’re even happier still,” explains Mike Sullivan, a retired school principal who spends five days a week volunteering at the Naples Botanical Garden. In about 18 month’s, he’s contributed more than 1,500 hours.
Melissa Titus at Alva Elementary. To put it in monetary terms, the estimated dollar value of volunteer time in 2010 was $21.36 per hour, according to an analysis by independentsector.org.
Mr. Sullivan, therefore, has contributed roughly $32,000 worth of work to the Naples Botanical Garden.
Mrs. Titus, additionally, has given the equivalent in volunteered work of about $75,600 to public schools and public school children.
And they’re not the only ones.
Up and down the southwest coast, volunteers abound — and so do donors (one particular species of volunteer, perhaps). Together, they make a qualitative and rarely celebrated difference in the way we live.
James Burton works at Olive Garden and volunteers his time at CCMI. “They’re all volunteers — they help us connect donors who care with the causes they care about,” says Debbie Gauvreau, director of nonprofit resources for the Charlotte Community Foundation, describing the brain trusts of individuals who roll up the sleeves on their white-collar shirts to voluntarily help a multitude of folks they may never meet.
“There are 10 board members (of the Charlotte Community Foundation), seven members of the endowment council, four members of the investment committee, 10 members of the grants advisory committee, three members of the marketing advisory council, seven members of the nonprofit leadership advisory council — there are about 100 nonprofit groups that take part in the monthly training programs and workshops they do to build their business skills. They teach them fundraising, marketing, governance, strategic planning — we’re the only provider of that kind of help, here.”
Pat Schmidt does 25 hours a week and 30 miles a day for CCMI. So who and how many are pitching in, and what does that say about us?
The simple statistics
In the United States, roughly one in four people actually volunteered last year — they pitched in to do something for somebody at a pay level amounting to exactly zero in dollars and cents, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.
“Sometimes Brian (Holley, executive director at the Naples Botanical Garden) tells me he’s going to give me a raise,” says Mr. Sullivan, chuckling. “I say, ‘Thank you. Zero times zero is zero.’”
But in Florida, ranked 49th among the 50 states for those with the grit and will to come off the bench in their communities and pitch in, only about one in five residents volunteered, notes CNCS. The corporation analyzes data from nonprofit organizations and community groups in all 50 states, and reports the findings at www.volunteeringinamerica. gov.
On the southwest coast, the percentages of volunteers vary widely, depending on the community — and it’s difficult to say what this means about particular communities. Is recession a factor? Wealth? Age? Residency status?
Nobody really knows, and the answer probably involves all of the above, say volunteer leaders.
In 2010, with 26.3 percent of Americans pitching in but only 21.3 percent of residents in the Sunshine State, a whopping 28.8 percent of Lee County residents pitched in, according to CNCS.
No numbers exist for Charlotte, but in Collier County — defined as Naples — only 12.1 percent of the resident population pitched in to help somebody other than themselves.
That statistic doesn’t mean much to Colleen Murphy, president and CEO of the $67 million Community Foundation of Collier County, the largest monetarily on the southwest coast.
“I’m surprised at that statistic, and the only thing that might explain it is that a lot of people here change their residences from North to South,” she says.
Since the statistics analyze the data of residents, those who qualify as snowbirds and may contribute significantly to their part-time communities are not counted there as volunteers.
“I can tell you there are many wonderful people who give of themselves both time and treasure,” Ms. Murphy adds. “About 30 percent of the nonprofits here have no paid staff. Their work is done completely by volunteers.
“Not including Naples Community Hospital — that place is a $500 million revenue organization — the rest of the nonprofits in Collier generate another $500 million, and there are probably 250 of them serving our citizens.”
For Sarah Owen, the newly named CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation in Lee, the statistics are mere leaves in the wind. The volunteers, on the other hand, are rock solid.
“My own personal experience is that I’ve seen folks really go above and beyond what any nonprofit has ever asked of them,” she says. “It runs the whole gamut and it takes everyone, from the people picking chicken off the bones to serve a meal in the community kitchen, all the way up to the host of a fundraiser in a private home.
“To me, it’s the fact of giving yourself in whatever way you’re inspired to do that, that matters. And agencies like the one I used to work for (Community Cooperative Ministries Inc., or CCMI) could not have been in business without 1,600 volunteers.”
People on the ground
One of those, for example, is James Burton, a 57-year-old line cook at an Olive Garden restaurant.
A husband and father who brought his family to the southwest coast from Northern Virginia (he’s a Texan by birth and upbringing), after cooking all week Mr. Burton then spends his day off cooking as a volunteer in the Community Café at CCMI.
There, kids who are sleeping in cars (a documented reality in the region), or men and women who were laid off during a recession that ended two years ago but not for them, can get one of Mr. Burton’s meals, rather than starve.
“I get here about 10 or 11 a.m. and I help cook the food Richard and I prepare for the day,” he explains simply.
“Today, we did stuffed peppers, sweet potatoes, barbecued turkey with mushroom rice, zucchini, orange slices and bread. There’s juice and water as well.”
Ask Mr. Burton why he wants to spend his day off back in a kitchen, and you know what he’s going to say.
“I just want to give back to somebody. Ever since this recession started, you see people walking the street, and they’re homeless and hungry…what are you gonna do?”
What are you going to do, indeed.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” the mantra of many who act in the interests of the less fortunate, is a sentiment that deeply affects many volunteers, they say. And if you’re one of them — If you’re Mr. Burton, or Pat Schmidt, for example — you take it upon yourself to do something.
At 7 a.m. on a cool December morning last week, Mrs. Schmidt, a 79-yearold widow who spent more than 70 years of her life in or around Minneapolis St. Paul, came wheeling into a nearly deserted Publix parking lot in a red Jeep. She hopped out and raced across the asphalt to enter the doors a minute or so after the store opened for the day.
All that is merely a slight exaggeration — she didn’t actually hop and she didn’t race. She lowered herself stiffly from the vehicle and walked slowly across the lot.
But Mrs. Schmidt appeared just as determined and lively — more so, in fact — than any hopper or racer who ever appeared bent on picking up some groceries.
Each weekday she drives the early morning miles to stores that give away left-over baked goods. She collects them — hauling two full-sized shopping carts at a time from the store’s entrance where clerks have filled them for her the night before, to her Jeep — then she transports the food she’s offloaded into large plastic bags back to the CCMI food store, known as the pantry.
There, shoppers pay for what they want in vouchers obtained after they meet with counselors — volunteers themselves who are trained to help determine their need, offer job counseling and the like.
Mrs. Schmidt then manages the pantry, something she’s been doing for about six years, since even before her husband died in 2010. So that’s about 25 to 30 hours per week, and 35 miles per day, she figures.
There’s a proximate cause and a once-upon-a-time cause for Mrs. Schmidt’s case of Good Samaritanism in her community.
Proximately, she became part of CCMI after meeting Sam Galloway in church. A prominent businessman and philanthropist in Lee County, he helped found the organization, and his children remain past or current members of its volunteer board.
But her willingness to pitch in, like that of so many volunteers, began decades earlier when she was a small girl walking with her mother through a brutally frigid winter morning in Minneapolis.
“My parents were always the ‘be kind and help the next person if you can’ kind of people,” she recalls.
“So I was going down the street holding my mother’s hand one morning when she saw a couple with two small children waiting for a bus. It was so cold, and they had no winter coats.
“My mother walked up and said to them, ‘You meet me at the department store.’ And we met them there and my mother bought them warm coats.”
That single act happened in a single hour in the 1940s — the decision of one woman on a city street who chose in a single moment to spend her extra money warming and protecting a family of strangers, on a single winter morning in another time and another place, far away.
Her name was Darlene Hallgrin, and she had a little girl named Pat.
Mrs. Hallgrin has been gone from this world for a long time, but her act of love and charity continues to resonate through her daughter, who has now grown old — an act arguably as vibrant and contemporary in spirit as a bright afternoon sun.
Which is just where Christi Sarlow, Jan Fifer and Rudy Cifolelli were standing last week while they brushed and readied a stable of steady horses for the riders about to descend for the afternoon — the Special Equestrians.
That happens to be the name of the organization that brings people with almost every kind of disability together with well-trained horses donated by generous equestrians, and experienced, volunteer instructors and caretakers.
The riders come from the region, sometimes their visits are doctor prescribed, most are children but their ages range from 3 to 70, and their cost is held down to a startlingly low $12 per hour.
That’s due to the many donors and volunteers who maintain Special Equestrians.
Result: The riders benefit from beautifully maintained animals in an immaculate and gentle setting.
The stables are comfortable and clean. The grounds include fenced pastures, broad pole barns and facilities allowing physically disabled people to mount and dismount easily. Trails both open and wooded wind through the property, and a “sensory trail” designed and built by FGCU student volunteers offers riders the chance to feel, taste, smell, see and hear things they could not otherwise experience in their lives.
Volunteer caretakers here share a vast experience both with horses and humans — and everybody seems to benefit from the all-volunteer Florida sunshine.
“There’s a magic about people and horses — these people will do things on a horse they wouldn’t do in a therapy room, for example,” says Ms. Fifer, 60, executive director of Special Equestrians (she’s a volunteer, of course) and a retired teacher.
“This is the result of a huge effort and generosity by many (donors and volunteers),” explains Ms. Sarlow, president of the board of Special Equestrians.
Although her clients together show a range of about 25 disabilities, the most frequent she and her volunteer staff embrace are autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and developmental problems.
“I can’t do this with a clear eye,” says Mr. Cifolelli, a 70-something master of the equestrian art who started riding and training horses as a young teenager in Detroit, of all places.
“I began working at a city stables there when I was about 14,” he says.
“Everybody here is well-trained, and to us the safety of the clients and the care of the horses is paramount. So any risk is washed away.”
One of Ms. Fifer’s equestrian students, for example, was born without legs. She began at Special Equestrians when was 6, and now — about six years later — she’s a wonder on horseback, completely comfortable on her own, Ms. Fifer says.
“She uses a surcingle — a girth and a handle — to ride,” she explains.
Many of the students do, too, mounting from a special platform to enter a world of freedom unlike any they know in the course of daily life.
“The movement of a horse’s walk is similar to the movement of a human pelvis,” says Ms. Fifer. “So it helps them with muscle strength and self control, and it gives those who can’t a sense of what it really feels like to walk.”
What it feels like to walk in a world where walking has been left out of the equation of living — symbolically and even literally that’s the gift that volunteers give each day up and down the southwest coast.
What they get, in return, couldn’t buy a cup of coffee or a Maserati, either one.
Instead, perhaps, it pays a dividend of knowing — of seeing.
“I met a Hindu couple one day and they were in the butterfly house, and one of the butterflies had succumbed,” recalls Mike Sullivan.
“And they asked the docent on duty if they could hold it in the palms of their hands and do a prayer. He agreed, and they did. Then they set the butterfly down on the ground behind some bushes where it wouldn’t be stepped on” — where it might just become part of the earth, again.
“I see those things and that’s my gain,” he concludes.
“I gain from every experience I have in every garden.” ¦