My Turn: Most people have never been asked to volunteer

Posted: Thursday, April 16, 2009

On Sept. 12, 2008, in a bipartisan collaboration, Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced the "Serve America Act" to expand opportunities for service for all Americans.

Volunteer service brings out the best in people and strengthens communities. Alaskans rank high in volunteerism at 39 percent, the fourth highest in the nation. The average national volunteer rate is 27 percent.

Prior to its 50th anniversary in 2008, AARP commissioned a study, "More to Give," on volunteerism. The study found that four out of every ten "Experienced Americans" - the 45 million Americans age 44 to 79 - indicate they are very or somewhat likely to increase the amount of time they spend volunteering in the next five years. Nearly the same proportion (39 percent) of retired Americans report that they increased volunteering after they retired.

What motivates someone to volunteer? Like politics, volunteering is local. Among people who volunteer on a regular basis 67 percent are motivated to volunteer if it helps someone in need; 62 percent out of a feeling of personal responsibility to help others; 55 percent out of a need to improve their community; 54 percent to give greater meaning to their lives; 51 percent to make a difference on an issue or problem, or stay healthy and active; and 45 percent to express a religious belief or value.

People who volunteer on a regular basis have a higher willingness to step up to the plate and help their fellow human beings. Why people volunteer is as varied as tomorrow's weather forecast. The need for volunteers is constant.

About 55 percent of Americans are very interested or already participate in at least one established volunteer program, such as Meals on Wheels, Senior Companions, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Foster Grandparents, Driver Safety or Tax-Aide, but what was surprising to learn is that nearly seven in ten non-volunteers report that they have never been asked to serve. Existing research shows that when personally asked to serve, more than eight in 10 will do so.

Many people want to expand their time volunteering for something worthwhile while even more people are waiting to be asked to volunteer. AARP's report shows this country is still a place where people can, as our founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus noted, "live up to our better selves, to believe well of our fellow men and perhaps by doing so to help create the good, to experiment, to explore, to change and to grow."

On March 26, the U.S. Senate passed the Serve America Act (House Resolution 1388), a bill that will strengthen and expand civic engagement and volunteer opportunities for people of all ages. The U.S. House passed the bill on March 31. This legislation asks 175,000 more Americans to give a year of service to address specific national challenges, thereby expanding the number of such service participants to 250,000.

The bill is devoted to enhancing service opportunities so people can apply a lifetime of acquired skills to address a range of identified service needs. The bill includes provisions that improve the capacity of nonprofit, service and philanthropic organizations to recruit, manage and apply volunteer skills to identified service needs in this period of economic recession and decreased charitable giving.

AARP Alaska is very pleased Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich voted in favor of the Serve America Act. The Serve America Act helps to provide additional service opportunities for people of all ages. People should be encouraged to give back to their communities - to create the good. Alaskans of all ages can create the good.

• Rosemary Hagevig is volunteer President of AARP Alaska and executive director of Catholic Community Services in Juneau. Daryl Royce is Director of Community Outreach for AARP Alaska.

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