Volunteer is a Verb

Nonprofits Improve Community Strength and Wellness

Here in Knoxville, “Volunteer spirit” has a double entendre that usually involves a particular shade of orange. However, Alyson Gallaher likes to say “volunteer is a verb.” As executive director for Volunteer East Tennessee, a sort of matchmaking center for local nonprofits and individuals who want to serve, she is the expert on volunteering in this area. With 85 community partners serving 25 counties in northeast Tennessee, Volunteer East Tennessee helps to ensure the region is served with well-staffed nonprofit organizations.

In the nonprofit sector, volunteers make it all happen. From manning a registration table and handing out meals to mentoring a child, many organizations simply could not open their doors without volunteers. 

“The sheer number of nonprofits in this area speaks to the level of care for our neighbors and how important it is to us as a community to care for each other,” Alyson says.

The strong sense of ownership the East Tennessee community shares and encourages potential volunteers to consider a long-term investment. Whatever the position, consistent, committed volunteers allow organizations to stay on track by meeting gaps in resources. With the support of volunteers, strong, efficiently operating nonprofits allow communities to thrive.

It may be tempting to take for granted the benefit that nonprofits provide, but these organizations fill in the gaps in services and resources that the government and the private sector simply cannot meet. 

“Children and puppies pull on people’s heartstrings,” Alyson notes, but there are many more areas served by NPOs. Faith-based charities, senior citizen needs, environmental issues, educational programs, neighborhood and professional associations, and arts and culture are just a few areas served by nonprofits. Not only do nonprofits provide charitable assistance, but they also improve a community’s overall health and wellness and even drive economic growth.

“When you’re out and serving and connecting with others,” Alyson says, “it makes for a tighter, more vibrant community.”

Chase Whitmire, director of Membership Development at the Alliance for Better Nonprofits, helps nonprofits succeed every day. The Alliance for Better Nonprofits, or ABN, assists other NPOs in accomplishing their missions by providing education, training, consulting, networking and more. Most nonprofit organizations start as a person with a passion, he notes, but many of those people don’t realize nonprofits essentially operate as a small business, with the same needs for administrative support, securing funding and marketing, for example. ABN supports nonprofit leaders at that fundamental level so they can be more effective for the community. 

Part of Chase’s job is meeting with new nonprofits and consulting people who are just getting started. They offer an affordable online class for how to start a nonprofit, advice for creating a volunteer board of directors, and guidance through the process of registering as a 501(c)(3). 

Whether you’re wanting to volunteer or start your own nonprofit, Alyson offers this advice for how to get started: 

  1. Ask yourself, "What do I care about?" Identify what speaks to your heart, and find a need or organization that aligns with your passion

  2. Next, be honest with yourself and with organizations about the level of time you are able to commit. Long-term volunteers are great, but it’s better to be upfront about what you can do than to overcommit and fall through.

  3. Take a skills inventory: what can you bring to the table? Do you want to use professional skills to assist and organization, or do you want to do something totally different? Think outside the box. 

  4. Finally, contact a nonprofit that interests you, or call Volunteer East Tennessee if you’re not sure.

“When people volunteer, it gives them ownership of what happens in their community,” Chase says. “[Volunteering] establishes and builds relationships across all the barriers we typically live in.”

Shora Foundation

Founded in 2008 by Tanika Harper, Shora Foundation was created to provide services and a “safe-place culture” to under-resourced youth communities in Knoxville. Programs support academic and character development, financial literacy, life skills, physical and emotional health, school preparedness, and providing basic needs. By removing barriers and providing unique opportunities for children and young adults, Shora Foundation is transforming the community by empowering its youth for success. To get involved, visit ShoraFoundation.org/Take-Action or call 865.208.5254.

Gateway to Independence

The Gate is a three-day-per-week program providing socialization and teaching independence to adults with differing abilities in Blount County. Providing a community for participants fosters relationships and prevents the isolation many differently abled adults feel after exiting the school system. The Gate offers music, games, exercise, Special Olympics practice, crafts and special events in a safe and supportive environment. Volunteers can call 865.317.GATE or email info@gatewaytn.org for more information.

River and Rail Theatre

A professional theater company with a heart for the community, River and Rail Theatre seeks to bring Knoxville together through stage performance. Valuing diversity among its leadership, artists and audiences, River and Rail Theatre donates tickets one-for-one through partner nonprofit organizations; provides educational workshops for youth and adults; and focuses on stories that promote compassion, healing and hope. In December, River and Rail will be opening the Old City Performance Arts Center featuring The Unusual Tale of Mary & Joseph’s Baby. To volunteer or donate, visit RiverAndRailTheatre.com or email info@riverandrailtheatre.com

Good Samaritan Center of Loudon County

Good Samaritan Center of Loudon County is the area’s go-to center for emergency assistance. Through charitable contributions and community partnerships, Good Samaritan Center fills in the gap for residents with a variety of programs, including nutritional support, electric help, dental and pharmacy needs, school supplies, senior services and more. Volunteers are needed for client intake, pantry workers, receptionists and special events. Contact Volunteer Coordinator Shirley Fagg at 865.986.5919 or Executive Director Cindy Black at 865.986.1777 x12 or visit GoodSamLoudonCounty.org.

Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful

A collaborative effort of Keep Tennessee Beautiful and the Tennessee Valley Authority, Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful inspires and mobilizes communities along the Tennessee River to preserve, improve and protect this beautiful waterway we call home. Programs include cleanup events, adopting areas to protect and even reducing cigarette litter at marinas with art-wrapped receptacles. Volunteers are needed in every area to preserve our river for generations to come, so please contact kathleen@keeptnriverbeautiful.org or call 865.386.3926 for more information.

A Secret Safe Place for Newborns

Born out of a passion to protect babies and mothers, A Secret Safe Place for Newborns promotes awareness and support for Tennessee’s Safe Haven Law, which allows mothers to anonymously surrender unharmed newborns without fear of prosecution or disclosure. Through printed media, educational programs, digital and print ads, social media presence, and a 24-hour helpline, A Secret Safe Place for Newborns hopes to end infant abandonment by educating mothers about this legal and lifesaving alternative. Volunteers can contact info@secretsafeplacetn.org or call 865.254.2208. For immediate crisis help, call 1.866.699.SAFE or email help@secretsafeplacetn.org.

For more information or to contact Volunteer East Tennessee, visit VolunteerETN.org or call 865.582.4085. To reach the Alliance for Better Nonprofits, visit BetterNonprofits.org or call 865.313.2077.

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