The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter needs volunteers around the year to serve daily meals, transport food, and sort through food and clothing donations. Last year, according to Executive Director Boyd Kronholm, the shelter recorded 7,000 volunteer hours, but volunteers put in the majority of those hours during two months — November and December.
Although Maine ranks ninth in the nation for volunteerism, and organizations that need volunteers’ help during the holiday season can generally find it, those same organizations struggle to keep adequate numbers during the rest of the year.
Some 38.7 percent of Maine residents volunteered between April 2017 and April 2018, according to the latest annual Volunteering in America report, compiled by the Corporation for National and Community Service. That’s the ninth highest rate in the nation. The report, which measures general volunteering with a formal organization, shows that 425,346 volunteers in Maine put in 39.2 million hours of service during the reporting period.
But what the study doesn’t show are the discrepancies between volunteer numbers and hours during the holiday season compared to the rest of the year. The needs of the people these organizations serve aren’t seasonal, but the volunteer help largely is.
Throughout the holiday season, the Salvation Army in Bangor sees about 100 volunteers pass through its Dorothy Day Soup kitchen on South Park Street. The organization attracts other holiday season volunteers who collect Christmas kettle donations and purchase toys for those in need. But during the rest of the year, the Salvation Army is down to 60 regular soup kitchen volunteers, said Capt. Rebecca Kirk, corps officer, pastor and administrator for the Salvation Army in Bangor.
The Salvation Army sees the most volunteers working at one time during its two big holiday meals before Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as through the red kettle effort, where volunteers collect monetary donations through Christmas Eve.
Christine Varisco and Jessica Corson, both of Bangor, were helping out at the soup kitchen at the Christmas meal on Dec. 19 after helping at the organization’s turkey drive before Thanksgiving.
Corson said she “thought it’d be a great way to give back, and spread the Christmas spirit.”
But the need is there the rest of the year, too, Kirk said. That’s when the organization is continually trying to find volunteers to help prepare and clean up after daily meals.
“There’s a little bit of a disconnect,” she said.
For organizations such as Good Shepherd Food Bank and Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, low volunteer numbers and donations can be detrimental to the people they serve. Bethany Tatro, volunteer coordinator at Good Shepherd Food Bank, said mid-January to March and mid-April are the times the food bank most needs extra help at its warehouses in Hampden and Auburn sorting food and preparing orders for its 400 partner organizations.
“We’re in Maine in the winter,” Tatro said. “People draw back in the house and forget these months. We are really in need at that point. We’re trying to get the same amount of food out.”
Kronholm said the same trend applies to donations at the shelter, which receives the majority of its food and clothing donations during the holidays. By mid- to late January, he said, the shelter starts running out of supplies, making February to April a difficult period before spring and summer food drives take place. The most needed foods are non-perishable, protein-rich items such as peanut butter, beans and canned tuna.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why volunteers stop their service following the holidays. Renee Bouchard, volunteer coordinator at Bangor’s St. Joseph Hospital, said it can be a combination of a lack of holiday spirit and busy work schedules.
“Sometimes folks feel more charitable during the holiday season, and our lives go back to the busy pace throughout the rest of the year,” Bouchard said.
Kirk noted that many organizations need volunteer help during daytime hours when people have to work. People might stop searching for volunteer opportunities when they see so many programs that don’t accommodate their schedules.
Local organizations recognize the scheduling limitations, and have adapted volunteer schedules accordingly.
At Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, volunteers have the opportunity to work at the front desk, cafeteria, gift shop and other departments. Volunteer Coordinator Martha Wildman also suggests that people join the hospital’s Auxiliary, which holds fundraising activities throughout the year.
Since the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen has a fixed mealtime schedule, the Salvation Army has other opportunities for volunteers who work during the day. About 20 volunteers work at the Family Store on Broadway storing donations and cleaning.
“People can give even an hour of their time,” Kirk said. “It’s not about being a rockstar, 40-hour volunteer.”
Holly Thompson of Brewer, an integration specialist at the addiction treatment agency Wellspring, brings a group of volunteers to prepare meals on the first Thursday of each month as well as for the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
Thompson, who is currently in recovery and was once homeless and hungry, wasn’t a frequent volunteer before she came to the Salvation Army soup kitchen in August 2017.
“The first time I came and volunteered here I was in tears,” Thompson said. “I was so grateful.”
After experiencing their first soup kitchen meal with the Salvation Army, both Corson and Varisco said they planned to return after the holidays.
“If everybody does a little bit, nobody has to do a lot,” Kirk said. “We can all benefit to see how awesome it is to volunteer.”