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Oakland City Center Volunteer Fair

East Bay Area nonprofits look for volunteers at local fair

on November 11, 2010

Six months ago, Oakland resident Myriam Wise lost her job with Amazon.com. Although she has been unable to find work since, the 40-year-old mother said the experience hasn’t been entirely negative—it has given her the chance to spend more time with her 10-year-old son. “He wants to either work with animals or at a food bank,” said Wise. So on Wednesday afternoon, she went to the Oakland City Center Volunteer Fair to see how she might be able to make his desire a reality.

Wise was among hundreds of residents, workers, and commuters who visited the downtown fair during the busy work lunch hour. Community members representing a dozen East Bay Area nonprofit organizations had set up informational tables in the center’s walkway area to encourage residents to volunteer and make donations. People shuffled from one table to another, asking questions and taking free snacks. Some inquirers were handed informational pamphlets and fliers. Others signed their telephone numbers and email addresses to contact lists for volunteer opportunities.

Participating groups included the Alameda County Community Food Bank, Girls Incorporated of Alameda County, Habitat For Humanity of the East Bay, and Reading Partners- a national organization that uses volunteers to tutor children.

Theresa Hurley is the program manager with the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, a group that specializes in volunteer referral and training. The center put Wednesday’s event together along with Oakland City Center administrators. Hurley said the volunteer center has more than 600 nonprofits in need of assistance registered on their website, and has seen an increase in the number of people interested in volunteering in the wake of the country’s economic downturn. “Some people are out of work looking for a way to keep their skills up,” Hurley said. “Then there are others who want to help while they’re out of work. Others just see there’s a need out there and want to help out.”

Judah Godoy, a volunteer facilitator with Alameda County Community Food Bank, said he, too, has noticed an increase in the number of volunteers over the past two years. In January 2010, the food bank had 5,000 volunteers, he said, but now they are approaching 6,000. Godoy said the need for the food bank’s services has also increased since the recession—it currently feeds 49,000 people a week, he said. “As people tighten up their belts, they tend to not spend as much on food,” Godoy said.

During the fall and winter seasons, organizations like the food bank often see an increase in volunteerism. “During the holidays, people start thinking about how lucky they are and how they can help out other people,” Hurley said. Additionally, she said, there are special opportunities for people to help out, such as adopting families for gift-giving or donating items or money to causes.

Nevertheless, these nonprofits depend on more than seasonal generosity. “People do tend to give more during the holiday season,” Godoy said. “But we definitely need the contributions throughout the year.”

To education-based nonprofit organizers, the holiday season makes no difference in the need for help. Reading Partners, for example, matches tutors over the age of 14 who can read and speak English well with elementary students who need help with reading skills throughout the entire school year. The organization services six East Bay Area sites including four in Oakland—the Berkeley-Maynard Academy, Brookfield Elementary School, Learning Without Limits, and Think College Now/International Community School. Outreach coordinator Alex Wyllie said the program recently enrolled its 1,000th student. “There are tons of kids in Oakland who need help,” she said.

Kate Messinger, volunteer coordinator with Girls Incorporated of Alameda County, a group that offers age-specific educational assistance, said her organization would not be able to operate without people giving their time. Locally, the group offers an after-school program in San Leandro for girls attending elementary through high school. Volunteers are needed for nearly every task, from working in the after-school program with students to fundraising, Messinger said. “Our ideal volunteer is probably a college student,” she said, “just because of the energy and enthusiasm and the length of time they stay.”

Although nonprofits are asking for people to offer their time without getting paid, some prospective volunteers see possibilities for long-term career benefits. Christine Nakamori, a Dublin resident who commutes to work in downtown Oakland, said if she was to be laid off by her job she would have had no problem donating her time to a nonprofit. “I think volunteering is awesome,” she said. “It looks great on your resume.”

Wise, the mom who was looking for a volunteer opportunity to share with her son, spent the afternoon talking with representatives from the food bank and the East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She said she also saw value beyond being of service to others in volunteering. “If you think about it, it’s free job skills,” she said. “Like if you work with Habitat for Humanity you’ll learn how to build a house. There’s a creative way to look at everything.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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