I live in Santa Rosa, California, which is the county seat of Sonoma County, a 1,768 square mile community just north of San Francisco. The total population is just under 500,000.

          As reported in the Press Democrat (September 22, 2010), Sonoma County houses one of the largest volunteer populations in California. Nearly two out of every five adults volunteered in the county. The 39% of Sonoma County residents who donated time in 2010 outpaced all other Northern California communities surveyed. In addition, volunteer rates for local residents significantly surpassed the national average (27%).

          I knew we were a volunteering community, but I was surprised to learn these impressive statistics that put us ahead of others. I wish I had a definite singular answer to the question, “Why?” Maybe because we house a large retired population or perhaps one affluent enough to have the time, money and inclination to give back.

          There is a huge need for volunteers and, with the economy being as it is, this need has never been bigger. In spite of all attempts to fill positions with paid staff, some organizations rely on volunteers more now then ever before. For instance, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital has approximately 135 volunteers who staff the front desk, gift shop and emergency room. These dedicated individuals, who range in age from early 20’s to mid-90’s, greet and guide stressed and ill clients to the places they need to be in the quickest way possible. They also deal with visitors and staff from other institutions and, on occasion, law enforcement personnel. Without them, it can be a pretty frustrating trip to the hospital.  Often times we look right through these volunteers. People are distracted and sometimes not at their best when needing their services.

          The United Way and the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County operate the Schools of Hope program staffed entirely by volunteers for 1st and 2nd graders in many elementary schools in the County. It is the program’s goal to increase participation from its current level of approximately 400 volunteers to 800 volunteers serving approximately 700 students in 20 schools. As one of the new recruits to this program, I was interested to learn that many students who don’t have a firm grasp on reading by third grade never make it to graduation.

          As you know, books are one of my things. When life sucks and parents, sibs and friends all seem a little crazy and non-supportive, there are always glorious books. That’s my main reason for donating a little of my time to Schools of Hope.

          Is it a strict requirement that if you’re retired you must volunteer at one point or another? Absolutely not, but it does make one (read ‘make me’) feel better. When the inside of my house closes in and I’m getting into my head too much, there’s nothing like a precious 7-year-old to change one’s (read ‘my’) perspective. My little guy, Tyler, is a good reader and he loves to show me how he has progressed from week to week. Even without that progression, however, the walk to and from the classroom with him where we talk about Halloween costumes, Christmas pageants and weekend events is sometimes worth the drive to the school in itself. How can a child not flourish when yet one more adult is giving him/her undivided attention?

          This is what we can do. No, it’s not formulating policy for inmate programs in the County Jail, nor is it successfully managing mega bucks in taxpayer dollars, both of which I have done. It is making a difference in my life and in the lives of those I work with, be they little learning citizens or scared and dying people.

          Next time you’re watching yet another rerun of the Kardashians, remember you can make a huge uplifting improvement in your life as well as in the life of another, whether it takes a half hour a week or 40 hours a week. It’s up to you.
          If you are inclined, check out the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County.