by Joni Astrup
Why should you volunteer? Jennifer Wucherer has a few reasons.
She said research shows that volunteering decreases the risk of depression, reduces stress levels and stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain — thereby increasing happiness.
Wucherer knows a thing or two about volunteering. She is the director of the AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP program covering a four-county region that includes Sherburne, Wright, Stearns and Benton counties. The program works to pair adults age 55 and older with volunteer opportunities.
In a recent presentation to the Sherburne County Board of Commissioners, Wucherer said 823 RSVP volunteers contributed 74,000 hours to the well-being of central Minnesota in 2021.
She said those numbers were down a bit since before COVID-19 hit. About 1,200 RSVP volunteers were active in the four-county region prior to the pandemic.
“Considering our circumstances, I’m pretty proud to say that we had 823 active volunteers contributing,” Wucherer told the board.
Areas where RSVP volunteers helped in 2021 include:
• 31 volunteers helped 955 individuals and families with tax preparation.
• 220 volunteers assisted at food shelves in the region, including CAER in Elk River, the Big Lake Community Food Shelf and the Becker Food Shelf.
• 728 volunteers provided more than 9,000 hours of companionship to older adults. “With COVID came a lot of social isolation,” Wucherer said. Volunteers helped mitigate that at senior living communities, home- and community-based services for aging and adult day care programs.
• 46 volunteers are back serving in schools.
• Volunteers also spent 26,720 hours in other community needs, which includes staffing the front desk at the Sherburne County Government Center in Elk River. That category also includes volunteers in local libraries, theater and arts programs and United Way programs, to name a few.
• Additionally, volunteers did work to support veterans (846 hours), helped with transportation to medical and social service appointments (9,329 hours), and contributed in health care and wellness settings (9,830 hours).
Specifically in Sherburne County, 179 volunteers served 13,589 hours supporting 50 agency partners in 2021, according to Carole McNaughton-Commers, program coordinator in Sherburne and Wright counties. Those volunteer hours represent a value of $407,000.
McNaughton-Commers said the process is very personalized for each volunteer. They meet individually with each one to go over a list of more than 100 skills and interest areas to try get to know each individual and their background.
“They have so much experience and life that’s been lived,” she said. “... So, we want to connect them to an appropriate and meaningful experience for them.”
She said there’s no threshold for how much a person must volunteer. McNaughton-Commers said the agencies they work with in Sherburne County have everything from one-time volunteer opportunities to ongoing positions.
“My job is kind of like a matchmaker — trying to really get to know the different parties, individuals and organizations, and lining them up,” she said.
Happiness in Action
Meanwhile, RSVP is launching a new mental health initiative called Happiness in Action.
The program is designed to promote mental health, wellness and volunteer service to benefit Wright, Sherburne, Stearns and Benton counties.