Add Joy to Your Life: Say “Yes” to Giving

A lifetime of volunteering

Connie Brown has been volunteering for the majority of her life. When she was a young girl growing up near Cleveland, she would shovel snow to clear driveways for neighbors who weren’t able to do it for themselves.  “I just have a heart for people,” she says. “I enjoy serving others. No one made me do it; I just enjoyed doing it.” She adds, “That was a long time ago. I’m 72.”


Connie Brown, top center, volunteers regularly with the Samaritan Center, a “grace-driven nonprofit organization with a mission to serve the hurting and hungry of Northwest Arkansas with dignity and compassion on a regular basis.”

You can see Connie’s love of volunteering in the impacts she logs on GivePulse. Between June and August of 2019, she recorded over 400 volunteer hours with four different organizations — and that’s just a scratch on the surface of her volunteer efforts. “I’ve had and enjoyed a lifetime of volunteering,” she says.

Unique giving culture

Her recent volunteer efforts have been in Northwest Arkansas, where she says there is a unique giving culture.“We have Walmart, we have other large businesses; we have a diverse community, a diverse population, and everybody gets along,” she says. “It’s very unique I think — I came from an area where that was not the case, it was a very divisive community over race and ethnicity. But here everybody gets along, everybody helps each other — it feels like we all partner to help those who need help.” 

When she first moved to Northwest Arkansas eleven years ago, Connie says, “I was looking for volunteer opportunities, places where I fit in, where I liked their mission. I just kind of slowly tried different places out, and saw that I fit, and that I liked their mission and I liked making a difference with them.” 


“You end up having that community of new friends when you volunteer… When you get acquainted with them, they become your friends, your family.”

For Connie, these organizations offered a community of like-minded individuals. “Many of the volunteers are long-term volunteers who have volunteered faithfully at the same place for 35 years — here they are week after week, day after day. To me, it’s amazing. It just shows the commitment of people in our community to organizations that make a difference and that help others in our community that need our help.” For example, Connie recalls fellow volunteer Jan from Helping Hands, who worked alongside her on Wednesdays until she moved away last year. Connie says, “When I’m working alongside Jan, who is 100 years old, I’m thinking ‘Oh my gosh, when I grow up I want to be like Jan!’” 

By returning to these same organizations on a regular basis, Connie says, “you end up having that community of new friends when you volunteer… When you get acquainted with them, they become your friends, your family; you get so much more than you give… I enjoy the volunteers that I meet; I enjoy serving the guests we have for lunch at the Samaritan Center, or the VA hospital, or the people who come to the food pantry at Helping Hands.”


Connie Brown serves pie at the Samaritan Center.

A heart for people

Connie believes that volunteering is a crucial part of life. “For the people who don’t volunteer at all, they’re just missing out on so many opportunities. It takes a village of all of us, and I’m just so glad to be a part of that village.” She adds, “Giving to others will never lessen what you have — it increases what you have exponentially. You give and you get so much more back.” 


“Giving to others will never lessen what you have — it increases what you have exponentially. You give and you get so much more back.”

The key tenet of volunteering, she says, is to have a heart for people. “You need a heart for people. You don’t need to be judgmental. You just need to have a heart for people and a willingness to serve.” 

For those who have not volunteered much before and are looking to start, Connie has this advice: “Look at areas you’re interested in. Try a place… Just try it. If you don’t like it, move on. You don’t have to be on the frontline of anything that’s done, you can be in a supporting role. I’m not the one leading the band; I’m a band member. But to just simply try it, and take that risk. You might like it, you might not like it. Ten to one, you will find a place where you really fit, where you really support their mission of what they’re doing, and where you found a new place to make a difference.”

A new place

Discovering something new about your community is another critical benefit of volunteering. Through volunteering, “you get opportunities to be with people you would not ordinarily be with — face to face with a homeless person, face to face with childhood hunger. When you’re serving those children lunch, and they’re eating and eating and eating.You get to see a side of what’s going on in your community that you may not in your own circle get exposed to… There’s people that kind of stand out, who you meet, and they make their mark on you just like you make your mark on them.”


“You get to see a side of what’s going on in your community that you may not in your own circle get exposed to.”

Two years ago, when Altrusa International celebrated their one hundred year anniversary, Connie took this idea of trying new things to another level. Altrusa International, a nonprofit focused on children’s literacy, asked their volunteers around the globe to volunteer one hundred hours that year. Connie recalls, “I thought, ‘Well, I do that in a month, what would be a challenge for me?’ This wasn’t required. I thought, ‘I’m gonna try 100 new places to volunteer.’ Now that was a challenge! It was something worthy of celebrating Altrusa International’s 100th birthday.”


This photo was posted on Altrusa International of Bentonville/Bella Vista AR’s Facebook page, which Connie maintains. Gay Kiker, President of Altrusa International of Bentonville/Bella Vista AR, describes Connie as a blessing to the organization.

In this personal challenge, Connie says, “I did all kinds of things — I did things I was interested in, things I had never done before, and it was just really eye opening and challenging, and a lot of fun.” In one of her new adventures, Connie volunteered for Trifest MS, a weekend long triathlon event that encourages participation for adults and children with disabilities. Connie was an encourager on the bike course: “I would holler at each one and high five.” Connie says that at first she wasn’t sure about the fit of this, thinking, “A bike course? Me?” She loved the experience and says it reminded her that “you just have to be open to new opportunities, and be willing to say ‘Yes.’ ‘Can I help serve 2000 hot dogs in an hour?’ ‘Yes!’”  

When you commit to stepping out of your comfort zone, Connie says, “You get to see what other organizations are doing, you get to be a small part of it.” She adds, “That was a really fun different experience for me. It was amazing when I was done. I was thinking, look at all the things I’ve done! Look at all the places I’ve done in NWA! Look at all the things that I’ve learned. It was a cool experience.”

Looking forward

Connie is passing this love of volunteering on to her grandkids. Her granddaughter has been volunteering alongside her in the food pantry at Helping Hands since she was four years old. “She couldn’t reach the tables,” she recalls, “but she was willing, and we worked side by side. I flipped over a plastic container that she could stand on. We would fill the bags with the staples that each family got, we would get the shopping carts out of the parking lot, we would recycle the cardboard and select the bread. I can vividly remember the first day we took her — when we came home, her mama asked, ‘Did she enjoy it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you wanna go back?’ ‘Oh yes — they need me.’ She felt needed, she felt wanted.” 

Connie herself has no intentions of stopping anytime soon. “I hope the day I die I’m volunteering somewhere.”

We highlight partners and volunteers in this “Why I Give” blog series to showcase why they are passionate about their work and ultimately inspire others to be passionate as well.

“If enough people stepped up, we could put a dent in food insecurity.”

Think about all the meals you’ve eaten this week. Now think about how much you threw away because you were way too full, you cooked too much, or maybe it wasn’t worth saving. This is food waste and it’s a huge problem. Sadly it’s also staggeringly common, so much so that 40% of food in the US is thrown away. This waste goes straight to landfills, which are responsible for 1/6 of our methane gas emissions.

What is also common is food insecurity, a problem wherein people don’t know where their next meal will come from. We are all too familiar with this as a society; we know that hunger is an issue. Donating to food drives and volunteering at soup kitchens are normal for us because we know there are so many families in need. They say everything’s bigger in Texas, and they’re right: 18.4% of Texas households experience food insecurity, placing us third in the nation.

JenniferJames_blog_pictureI got a chance to sit down with Jennifer James, Logistics Director for Keep Austin Fed, to talk about her experiences with the food rescue organization and how she got her start there. For her, these problems were a “no-brainer”. We have all this perfectly edible food, and we have so many hungry families –  let’s feed them! Jennifer’s journey with KAF began about three years ago in a community college philosophy class. While dedicating her time to homeschooling her three children, Jennifer became involved with various volunteer opportunities. At the same time, Jennifer decided to go back to school and finish her bachelor’s degree in accounting, a choice she described as both setting an example for her children, as well as doing something for herself.

Jennifer’s professor gave the class two options for a project: write a research paper OR do a community service project with a final reflection essay on the experience. With her history of getting involved in the community, Jennifer opted for the service project and volunteered six hours that semester with Keep Austin Fed. On her first food run with the organization to a local grocery store, she recalls her “mouth dropping because of all the food [the store] would’ve thrown away had [they] not been there to pick it up.” Jennifer then came to the big conclusion: we don’t have a food production problem, we have a food distribution problem.

After writing the reflection paper and finishing up her class, Jennifer continued to work with KAF in big part because of the two-fold pay off, helping people with food insecurity and helping the environment. She is persevering toward completing her degree at Texas State University while also continuing to homeschool her youngest. Jennifer describes herself as always getting involved with whatever she’s interested in, and working with KAF was no exception as “opportunities kept opening up” to support their mission further.

Her passion for this cause was obvious throughout our conversation, and she believes it can be obvious to others as well, since it’s really difficult to believe  “anyone who would be okay with children going hungry.” According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, humans have to fulfill their physiological needs, like hunger, in order to be able to fulfill higher needs like education, social stability, and self-confidence. It makes complete sense, and that is what  Keep Austin Fed is trying to do by reaching out to schools so they can identify families who might be suffering from food insecurity. She is also a firm believer in the power of the next generation to help solve these pervasive problems: “the more our kids know about this, the more they can carry it forward.”

Sitting down with our community partners to find out why they do what they do is important to all of us here at GivePulse. We want to help them do more for their community as much as we can. Jennifer let us know how KAF could save more food in two ways: more volunteers and a large  facility.

Keep Austin Fed “can always find donors and recipients…but the limitation on saving more food is volunteers.”  Using GivePulse as their platform for volunteer management, Jennifer is able to easily view on her calendar which food runs are filled and which still need volunteers. The biggest part of her job is making sure there is a volunteer for each run and she is constantly reaching out to current volunteers to insure each recipient receives their share. When things get a bit overwhelming, Jennifer understands “you can’t save all the food”, but doing what you can is so important. Food waste and insecurity is a collective problem requiring a collective impact, but Jennifer believes “if enough people stepped up, we could put a dent in food insecurity.” Click here for more information on how to do what you can to help KAF move the needle on these issues.

With all the time and resources in the world, Jennifer’s dream for KAF would be “one big building with lots of freezers, a conference room for bigger orientations, and a party room for volunteers to get together every few months.” Increasing the longevity of the end-of-life food they pick up, holding larger orientations to accommodate more potential volunteers, and hosting get-togethers for current volunteers to inform them how they can be more involved could all greatly increase the amount of food KAF is able to save and the number of families they can feed. Click here to donate and help support these dreams.

 

Keep Austin Fed is a kind neighbor and client of GivePulse. We highlight our community partners in this “Why I Give” blog series to showcase why they are passionate about their work and ultimately inspire others to be passionate as well. For more information on how your organization can utilize our platform or to be featured in this series, reach out to us at blog@givepulse.com.

“I care about the place that I live.”

The community partners we work with each have unique missions, but we believe the reason they do this work is just as important as the work itself. The people who dedicate their time and knowledge to make positive impacts in their community all have strong motivating factors for being in the nonprofit sector because let’s be honest, the draw isn’t exactly in the earning potential. Passion for a cause is what drives these individuals to do what they do and each one of them has a story.

Allison.siteFor Allison Watkins, Chief Strategy Officer for the Austin Parks Foundation, her “why” begins not in the nonprofit sector, but rather in the glittery world of advertising. While completing her Masters degree in Advertising at the University of Texas at Austin, Allison realized that copywriting and the corporate world didn’t provide the fulfillment of doing work she was truly passionate about. Working with the LIVESTRONG Foundation (formerly the Lance Armstrong Foundation), however, did just that. She was interested in creating awareness for cancer support services as her father is a survivor,  and she “could see everyday that they were doing good work and impacting people’s lives.” After dedicating nearly 12 years to LIVESTRONG, she dabbled in for-profit consulting before joining the team at Austin Parks Foundation.

APF started off nearly 25 years ago as a group of passionate conservationists, environmentalists, and volunteers; people who Allison describes as “folks that wanted to get their hands dirty.” They wanted to relieve some of the burden of maintaining Austin’s expansive park system from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and with this goal the Foundation was born.

As a third generation Austinite, now with a family of her own, Allison feels a unique draw to its outdoor spaces and enjoys working to preserve these areas that the city is so well-known for. Transitioning from the global impact of cancer survivorship  to the local impact of APF was an important step for her in order to see a tangible, quantifiable effect on her own community. There is definitely something to be said for walking through any green space and knowing you had a hand in preserving it for everyone to enjoy, as an administrator or a volunteer. APF utilizes thousands of volunteers every year to beautify and maintain the spaces under their care, and one of their biggest volunteer engagement events is their annual It’s My Park Day. This was Allison’s first event with APF, as well as the foundation’s first event utilizing the GivePulse platform.

The record-setting 14th Annual It’s My Park Day was a huge success, and for Allison it “was overwhelming to see Austinites’ involvement in [APF’s] mission and their desire to take time to invest in their local parks, trails, and green spaces.” APF was able to coordinate over 3,500 volunteers, 115 projects, and 14,000 hours of work for their most impactful It’s My Park Day yet. The time and work that was donated by community members equated a financial investment of $215,240 in park labor, which goes to show just how strong of an effect volunteer work can have in improving the green spaces in your own backyard. By utilizing GivePulse for the first time, APF was able to delegate leadership to those volunteers that want to be as involved as possible in supporting their mission by empowering their “super volunteers” to submit project proposals online and have those proposals reviewed by both APF and Austin Parks and Recreation Department. This enabled APF administrators to have more time to do outreach and promotion, and culminated in a successful and impactful event for everyone involved. For more information on APF’s It’s My Park Day 2016 and how to get involved for next year, click here.

Overall, Allison’s “why” is simple and something I think we can all relate to: “I care about the place that I live.” We all enjoy the green spaces we have around us, whether it’s your favorite hiking trail or metropolitan park, or even the playground in your neighborhood. It’s essential to acknowledge the resources and commitment it takes to preserve these outdoor areas, as well dedicate what time and funds we can to make a difference in our own backyard. In Allison’s words, “the world works when people get involved.”

The Austin Parks Foundation is a kind neighbor and client of GivePulse. To learn more about how they utilize our platform, enjoy our video. For more information on volunteering, click here.