VolunteerLee seeking helpers, offering prizes for support

Jan. 27, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

A new website can put Lee County schools, non-profits and other groups who need help in contact with potential volunteers, and vice versa.

As of Thursday afternoon, 242 locals had joined www.volunteerlee.com, as well as 32 groups. The website was created by the United Way of Lee County, with former county commission candidate Ron Hewett taking the lead. He said the website will need to have at least 1,000 prospective volunteers to have a consistent level of help, and that he thinks there could be as many as 2,000 by the end of a contest in March.

In that contest, the two groups — one school parent-teacher organization and one other nonprofit organization — that encourage the most people to register on the VolunteerLee website will each receive a $500 prize, donated by local businesses.

  According to a press release sent Wednesday, new users should indicate which group inspired them to register by entering the school or organization's name in the "company" box on their profile. For a group to be eligible, it must have a complete profile on the site, including having a logo, the "who we are" and "what we do" sections, and one or more needs posted. The contest runs through March 30.

Hewett said his goal is 1,000 users because not everyone who makes a profile will ultimately have the time to give, but they will at least hear about opportunities and might tell friends and co-workers.

"When they go out and touch a few people who are closer to that subject, then you've got three or four people involved who might have time to spare," he said.

In the press release, he's quoted as saying: "The idea is to help people get connected. A lot of people have been frustrated because they want to help, but don't know where to turn. Now, there's one place where volunteers can go to learn about the outstanding organizations in our community and groups can go to find people who have the kind of interests and time they need."

One of the groups that has been active on the nascent site is Communities in Schools of Lee County, the local chapter of a statewide group focused on at-risk students, especially in the area of drop-out prevention. The group has two needs posted on the site — one for tutors and mentors to meet with SanLee Middle School students once a week, and another for a volunteer to deliver supplies to needy children at Greenwood Elementary School.

The delivery need has already been filled, said Heather Little, the group's executive director, who said she's grateful for the new website since she relies heavily on volunteers.

"We've had a lot of luck with social media just in general to bring in volunteers," she said. "... We use Facebook a ton, but we see (VolunteerLee) as another avenue of reaching people who are internet-savvy but maybe don't have a Facebook page."

The website operates in a typical social media style: Users can browse all the groups who need help, can browse by the type of help requested (by time commitment or by category, such as arts and culture, financial, home repair, bilingual help, veterans services, court-mandated and more) or finally can indicate specific groups to receive automatic updates from.

People can also list their own interests and preferences, and groups with the same will be able to look them up specifically.

Little said from a group's perspective, the site is easy to navigate, and profiles are easy to set up and personalize.

"Even things like putting your pictures and your videos up isn't that time-consuming," she said.

According to the press release, The United Way will contact every organization that signs up and provide some training on how to use the site, which generally takes about an hour, if the group wants the help.

  "Our motto is 'Improving our community ... one person at a time,' and that's what the site is designed to do," Hewett said in the release. "We saw during the tornado and we see every day how willing people are to help if they know where they can make an impact. VolunteerLee.com is the place to find out."

So far, not all 32 groups on the site have posted needs, but many have posted multiple opportunities, led by HAVEN of Lee County and a smattering of local elementary schools. Other needs include everything from referees for Upward Basketball, thrift store helpers, tech support and fund-raising assistance.