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Business & Economy

Central Ohio nonprofits say volunteers are coming back after significant decrease during pandemic

Two hands reach into a bin filled with nonperishable foods.
Allie Vugrincic
Volunteers reach into a large bin filled with nonperishable foods Monday at Mid-Ohio Food Collective's pantry on Brookham Drive in Grove City.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteering saw its largest drop since AmeriCorps started keeping track of it two decades ago.

Central Ohio volunteer coordinators say that in most cases, their organizations felt the sting of lower volunteer numbers. But now, volunteers are coming back and sometimes in even greater force than before.

Monday afternoon, Mid-Ohio Food Collective’s on-site pantry in Grove City was buzzing as volunteers sorted and organized food that would go on to be distributed across 20 counties in central and eastern Ohio.

Most days are busy at the pantry, with volunteers lending helping hands six days a week from the early morning through the evening. Director of Volunteer Services Elizabeth Garrabrant jokes that it can sometimes look like “Lucy and Ethel” with the moving conveyor belt.

About 15,000 individuals volunteered with Mid-Ohio Food Collective in the past year in about 40 different volunteer opportunities, both at the main pantry on Brookham Drive and at Mid-Ohio Food Collective’s market sites.

“It's been an interesting ride and certainly lots of ups and downs. But that's you know, that's a thousand higher than it was the last pre-COVID year,” Garrabrant said.

For several months during the pandemic, no volunteers were allowed at Mid-Ohio’s massive facility – but thankfully, the Ohio National Guard stepped in and kept operations going.

Now, volunteers are back in greater numbers than before.

Ken Broussard, a retiree who has volunteered with Mid-Ohio for 14 years, had to stop coming for two years during the pandemic. He’s glad to be back.

“I have a lot of friends here, so we get together on Monday afternoons and have a good time,” Broussard said.

Two volunteers sort boxes of mac n' cheese at Mid-Ohio Food Collective's pantry on Brookham Drive in Grove City.
Allie Vugrincic
Volunteers Trent Escue of Grove City, left, and Ken Broussard of Worthington sort and sanitize food Monday at Mid-Ohio Food Collective's pantry on Brookham Drive in Grove City.

Feeling the squeeze

Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that AmeriCorps' two-year reportshows that volunteerism dropped seven percent between 2019 and 2021. In Ohio, the rate of formal volunteering dropped from 37 percent to 24 percent.

Some organizations are still feeling the squeeze of lower volunteer numbers. At United Way of Central Ohio, the number of hours logged by its volunteers dropped by about 60 percent from 2019 to 2022.

United Way had half as many volunteers for its free tax preparation services going from about 200 to 100. The organization's school-based programs have suffered, too, said UWCO Chief Development Officer Mary Birchard.

Birchard said fewer volunteers means that United Way can help fewer families – and it comes at a time when UWCO’s more than 90 nonprofit partners are struggling with staffing problems.

Many of United Way’s volunteers are retirees who felt, or still feel, uncomfortable being out and about. Perhaps a bigger problem, though, is that United Way relies on groups of corporate volunteers.

“What I attribute to the shift in working from home and hybrid and remote work schedules have made it more difficult to engage some of the corporate groups that previously really provided robust support to some of these organizations,” Birchard said.

Worthington Resource Pantry Director Christa Passafiume also noticed a big drop in corporate volunteers. The pantry that serves eight zip codes in northern Franklin and southern Delaware counties, however, never suffered from lack of help.

“Of course, when the initial wave of COVID hit, we had plenty of volunteers that felt like they needed to step back for their own health and safety. But our programs didn't stop. In fact, our programs kept growing to meet more of the needs of the community,” Passafiume said.

The pandemic actually brought some new volunteers to the Worthington Resource Pantry: people who were furloughed or sick of being at home and many of them stuck around.

"Our programs didn't stop. In fact, our programs kept growing to meet more of the needs of the community.”
Christa Passafiume, Worthington Resource Pantry Director

Dublin volunteer coordinator Shannon Maurer said volunteering for the city came to a near stop during the pandemic. Of course, Dublin mostly calls upon volunteers to help with events like the Dublin Irish Festival and the Fourth of July celebration, which didn’t happen during the pandemic years anyway.

Still, Maurer knew it was important to keep volunteers engaged.

“And what we did is we dropped off little yard signs at their house, and you know, we put up yard signs that said thank you,” Maurer said.

The gesture worked.

“I was really surprised at how many we retained. I don't think we lost any, maybe a handful, where folks are still not very comfortable being in crowds,” she said.

Galen Roth with the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio says that after going without volunteers for a while, the bank is nearly back to pre-pandemic volunteer hours. The nonprofit that gives furniture to families in need is also back to pre-pandemic levels of service.

“Very shortly after that first round of lockdowns, we found out just how much volunteers meant to the organization," Roth said. "We're like, we can't do it. We always said we couldn't do it without the volunteers and here we are.”

Volunteers sort food at Mid-Ohio Food Collective's food pantry in Grove City.
Allie Vugrincic
Volunteers sort through bins of food at Mid-Ohio Food Collective's on-site food pantry in Grove City.

Volunteering for everyone

AmeriCorps recently released data, which also broke down volunteers by demographics.

In Ohio, there is a nearly even split between men and women, AmeriCorps data shows. Volunteering was also fairly consistent across generations, with about 26 percent of millennials, Gen X and baby boomers volunteering and about 18 percent of older and younger people joining them.

Informal helping, things like housesitting, lending tools or running errands for friends and neighbors, remained pretty stable even through the pandemic, at about 51 percent across the nation and almost 55 percent in Ohio.

Nationally, more than 60.7 million people volunteered with organizations between Sept. 2020 and Sept. 2021, giving an estimated 4.1 billion hours of their time, worth an estimated value of $122.9 billion.

Birchard said that volunteers have an impact, of course on the organizations where volunteers spend their time, but also on individuals.

“The real impact on lives of our community members and relationships that can be formed and built through those volunteer engagements are less tangible, harder to calculate, but probably the most meaningful part of volunteerism," she said.

To volunteer with United Way of Central Ohio or Mid-Ohio Food Collective, or any of their partner nonprofits and food banks, more information is available online.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.