Every month, about 350 families from Augusta and Manchester have their food security challenges met through the work of the Augusta Food Bank.

It’s a lot of work for the nonprofit, and it relies on the generosity of volunteers giving their time to make it happen.

Melissa Shea at the Augusta Food Bank on Monday. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

“There is really good energy,” Distribution Manager Melissa Shea said of food bank workers. “All walks of life that have come through this door have enjoyed volunteering here, and they can see what they’re doing is helping a lot of families.”

Those volunteers come through the doors in numerous ways, one of which is the United Way of Kennebec Valley’s VolunteerME website. In the past year, the number of volunteers registering on the website has grown by 17 percent. In March, nonprofit pages were visited 468 times and a total of 943 volunteer opportunities were viewed.

“We were noticing at the United Way that we were getting phone calls from people looking for volunteers, people asking ‘what do you have,’” said Courtney Yeager, director of resource development and marketing for United Way of Kennebec Valley, adding that the organization didn’t have a lot of opportunities itself and had no real way to know what other groups might have. “These were missed connections.”

So VolunteerME was born, a statewide initiative from all the United Ways in Maine. Each of the nine branches of the organization in the state has its own, but the platform looks the same for each of them. The website was started in 2016, with 699 people expressing interest in volunteering having registered, as have 43 nonprofits looking for help.

Now, Yeager said, “when people call and ask about volunteering opportunities, we can direct them to the website.”

“You don’t have to be a (United Way) partner program to be on the platform; you just have to be a nonprofit,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to offer this. With so many different nonprofits in the area, we can really be a one-stop shop (for finding volunteer opportunities).”

“The really great thing, more than any other resource, is the site is really local to your community,” Yeager added. “People can really drill down into what their interests are to find a volunteer opportunity that suits them.

 

VARIETY OF ROLES 

The local connection seems to have some meaning, at least in the experience of Ginny Marriner, director of Literacy Volunteers of Greater Augusta.

“We are on a couple of other national sites, but we’ve actually had better success with the United Way’s VolunteerME site,” she said. “Maybe because it’s more local, but people are sincere and interested in following through when they sign up.”

“It’s a great opportunity for us and any other organization,” Marriner added, “and it gives people (interested in volunteering) a chance to anonymously check things out, read what the organization’s philosophy is about and what they do. Sometimes if you call someplace, you feel committed to helping them. This way you can poke around and find what’s right for you.”

The food bank has found several volunteers through the site, Shea said, including some who now have permanent shifts with the organization. She likes that she can post for specific positions and find the right candidate.

One example Shea gave was finding a replacement for someone to make appointments for people to come to the food bank.

“I went on and posted that we needed someone to work twice a week (to do the scheduling). We found someone — and she’s been great — who came from a company where that’s what she did,” she said. “She took phone calls and did scheduling. By being able to get really specific, you can target people you’re looking for.

“We have some positions where you need to have computer skills, some where you need to have a strong back and lift heavy things,” Shea added. “I can specify what each position is, and it is really handy to be able to get specific.”

The food bank does not have any permanent positions available, but it is looking for people willing to work on a fill-in basis. Substitute roles sometimes turn into permanent ones.

“Once they get in here and I get to know them, if they seem like a good fit — and most people are — they might say, ‘I’d really like to do this regularly,’” Shea said.

Dick Thompson, left, works Thursday with David Rand at the Literacy Volunteers of Greater Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

As its name suggests, Literacy Volunteers couldn’t function without volunteers. While tutors are needed to help people improve their reading or learn English, volunteers come in many forms.

“People who have come through that site have filled a variety of roles,” said Marriner. “Someone joined the board (of directors). Two people are currently tutoring. Others are doing some fundraising.

“With the exception of one, everyone has found a role,” she added.

Because there is a time commitment for tutors — five-and-a-half hours of training and an hour a week for at least a year — that role may not work for everyone. There are currently two board of directors openings, and special events bring other opportunities. One such upcoming chance is helping staff a table at the Kennebec Valley YMCA’s Healthy Kids Day, which is coming up April 27.

“Part of that work is encouraging family literacy,” Marriner said. “We’re looking for volunteers to help out at that event.

“In the summer, we do story walks — pages of a book along a trail,” she added. “We have volunteers help out at that.”

 

FINDING THEIR PLACE

When his children were younger, Matt Newell gave his time to their school. Once they got older, however, he found himself looking for other ways to contribute to the community.

“I find that very fulfilling,” he said, adding he’s found many charitable organizations doing great things for the community. “It makes me feel good to help them out.”

The first opportunity he found through the VolunteerME website was assisting the Children’s Center with its Chili Chowder Cookoff last year.

“I helped them do their setup; I arrived early in the morning to get their tables ready, helped vendors bringing in their food items,” Newell said. “I did some ticket taking, generally anything they needed.”

Katelyn Pushard is director of development and quality improvement for Children’s Center, which has locations in Augusta, Farmington, Gardiner and Skowhegan. Not only has she used the website to post volunteer needs, she’s also found opportunities for herself.

“Some of the things I’ve done recently is went to an opportunity to help out with adults with disabilities who were bowling in the community, helped a basic essential pantry organize their supplies and went to a Day of Caring to help out with lunches at Cony and Winthrop,” she said.

Through her involvement with the United Way — Pushard is a co-chairperson for the Emerging Leaders Society, whose members offer both financial and service contributions — she is exposed to a lot of organizations in central Maine and their volunteer needs. For those less familiar with that world, however, she said it’s a great place to find a lot of information in one place.

“If someone’s looking for (volunteer) opportunities, the website is amazing, because it has such a variety,” Pushard said. “I don’t know where other agencies post this information, but the amount of opportunities and information in one place, I don’t know any other system that has that.”

Newell became familiar with the site because he’s active with the United Way as part of its Emerging Leaders Society. Not only does the site help him track his volunteer hours, but it also has helped him connect with opportunities that fit his time and skills.

“It’s a great tool to find the organizations that are in need. People want to volunteer, but they don’t know where to go,” Newell said. “Any way people can help their community, it’s a great thing. Whether it’s through this tool, or churches, schools or towns.

“Everyone in our community is impacted by volunteers, whether you realize it or not,” he added. “Everybody needs help at some time in their lives, whether it’s a smiling face or financial help.”

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