TAKE 5: Help sought, found with project

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

This week, we Take 5 with United Way of Lee County volunteer Ron Hewett about the VolunteerLee project, and specifically the VolunteerLee.com website, which allows volunteers in Lee County to connect with agencies and organizations seeking help with specific projects.

How did VolunteerLee.com get started?

In 2010, an education advisory committee of local education and community leaders was formed to determine what members of the community could do to support efforts within the Lee County School System. This was part of a Gates Foundation grant to United Way of Lee County. In the course of a one-year discussion with the community, including our teachers, we determined the most urgent need was some way of connecting people who want to volunteer in the schools with the schools that were looking for volunteers.

We then formed a steering committee of community members familiar with using a variety of networking capabilities. We chose to go the Internet route — using www.VolunteerLee.com as our website — to reduce costs and provide the most direct, up-to-date and simple connection. We also decided to open the network to all organizations that offered wholesome services to our community and not just limit the organizations to schools. Now we have schools, nonprofits, civic clubs and churches on the site.

How do people access the system?

On your computer, just go to www.VolunteerLee.com and you’ll find instructions for individuals to “join” as potential volunteers and for organizations to “sign up.”

Individuals “join” or register in less than 10 minutes. Joining does not obligate you. Organizations take about the same time, but then they need to add detailed information, which takes about an hour of training and information entry. This information includes what the organization does and who they support.

Once you’re a part of the system, at any time you can go to the list of organizations on the site, read their information and pick out the ones that you feel are a fit for what you want to do. Then you click and become a “fan,” and that connects you to the organization. You are notified by email what needs that the organization is trying to fill, including volunteering, donating goods and supporting specific events.

Even if you’re already actively volunteering in the community, being connected to the website gives you a broader perspective of what’s going on in the community and where the needs are. It’s also an easy way to connect and invite friends to join the site and find their place in the community. This site can be viewed as a “place to gather” and share what great things are happening and could happen in our community.

How much time does someone have to commit when they volunteer?

Some opportunities may ask for an hour each week or every other week, like reading and mentoring to elementary students. Some opportunities are on a regular, weekly basis for a few hours. Some opportunities may be a one-time opportunity at a specific event.

There are also opportunities for families to volunteer. In fact, this may be the best way to teach youth about volunteering and its impact on the community. We have a great volunteer spirit in Lee County, volunteering for family opportunities will help us grow the next generation of volunteers.

Individuals of any age can volunteer. If there are any restrictions, the organization will indicate what they are in their information.

How many organizations and individuals are signed up right now?

We have nearly all the schools onboard, as well as several nonprofits like CUOC, Temple Theatre, Books at a Steal, Habitat for Humanity and more. We have education opportunities, employment help organizations, shelter, hunger relief and a variety of other causes. It’s better if you log onto the site and go through the list yourself. You’ll find about 40 opportunities.

As far as “members,” we’re approaching 500 members in the volunteer pool. We believe we can reach the 1,000 mark by the end of March with a little more promotion.

During the past two months, we have had more than 1,500 organization views per month and 10 to 15 responses to volunteer requests. As we expand our pool of registrations and organizations, we will see more and more connections.

What’s your biggest challenge?

Like any new community program, it takes time to get the word out about the program. In our case, we have two markets to reach, the organizations that need volunteers and the people who will fill the needs. Promoting VolunteerLee.com to both markets takes time to overcome the learning curve. The more organizations and people we get to visit the site, the better chance we have that they will want to participate.

We are in the midst of a sign-up campaign for organizations and schools to encourage as many people to join the site as possible. The organization that promotes the most will win a $500 prize, and the school that promotes the most will get $500 for its PTO. The prize money is provided by local businesses. The deadline for this contest is March 30.

If you’re involved in an organization not currently a part of VolunteerLee, we can quickly provide the necessary training and support until your group is fully up and running. The Southern Lee High School business club is putting together a strategy to help us to reach out to organizations and provide hands-on support.

I believe everyone inherently appreciates those who choose to volunteer. But for our community to really feel the impact of a volunteer culture, we all need to find our passion and roll up our sleeves and volunteer.

Go to VolunteerLee.com, join, find out what organizations are looking for. Start the connection with the organizations that you have a passion for, and at some point, I am sure they will find something that they feel is right.

What can we look for on VolunteerLee.com in the near future?

The Temple Theatre, Sanford Job Express and Sanford Job Seekers, along with some other organizations, are now available. The Sanford Lions intend to use the site to recruit and manage their volunteers for the September 2013 regional fair. We are trying to get more churches on the site. So far, St Luke United Methodist Chuch is on the site. A lot is going on, and we are getting busier.

Just go to www.VolunteerLee.com and check out the site. You don’t have to commit. Just remember, we are not a COMM-NITY until U are in it!