Volunteers During a Crisis

For the past nine weeks, like many of you, I’ve been sheltering in place with the occasional brief excursion to the grocery or drug store only to hurry home to resume hiding. The one saving grace and antidote for this insanity comes through the online courses I am teaching.

Of particular joy for me was launching “Volunteer Management and Aging Services.” Now, at the end of the semester, it has been extremely satisfying to read the students’ final exam submissions. I ask them to explain what they were taking away from the course, and as they move into their careers (administrators, health care workers, and social workers) how would they apply what they’ve learned.

I am so encouraged by what my students expressed in their responses.

They explained how valuable and necessary volunteer support is to the paid staff. They talked about having a fully integrated volunteer and paid workforce, led by a trained professional, working together to fulfill the mission of the organization. Many of them admitted that before taking the course, they thought of volunteers as “unreliable.” Their perception of volunteers and volunteering has changed; they now realize that volunteers are more than just a “nice-to-have” add-on. Instead, they now understand that a viable and sustainable volunteer workforce should be led by a trained director of volunteers and that it won’t happen by accident.

They talked about developing an organizational philosophy concerning volunteers while garnering input and support from the board of directors to the frontline workers.  Many of them expressed surprise at the importance of developing and executing a cost-based analysis of the volunteer workforce as well as producing eye-popping impact statements that go well beyond just talking about what happened. I am hoping and believing that this class of students will be the first of many cohorts to bring these ideas to their workplace.

In the meantime, I’ve been contemplating my work as an advocate for long-term care volunteers.

I have been feeling very concerned thinking about the thousands of older adults that are now under quarantine as a result of COVID-19. Thinking about the pandemic and its impacts on the people living and working in nursing homes renews my resolve to convince long-term care providers that they are ignoring a valuable and viable resource by not cultivating what I call “super” volunteers. I explain this in detail in my book “Creating the Volun-Cheer Force.”

For this article, I wanted to find out what volunteers around the world are doing during this crisis. Searching the internet and social media, it did not take long to discover that volunteers around the globe are providing remarkable, innovative, and critical support to a variety of service providers and individuals while in some cases even exposing themselves to the risk of contracting the Coronavirus.

 One of my “go-to” sources is Twitter, as it is a near-real-time continuous conversation with people reporting on events from around the globe. Searching on the word “volunteers” was eye-opening as “tweet” after “tweet” expressed heartfelt gratitude for volunteers who are delivering meals, medicine, prescriptions, and other supplies to shut-ins, and to those who are too ill to leave home. Volunteers are making personal protective equipment (PPE) and even wearing PPE while being trained to provide nonmedical supports to hospital staff and patients.

At the writing of this article, most of the tweets about volunteers were coming from the United Kingdom. When it became apparent that the Coronavirus was going only to escalate, The Royal Voluntary Service working with the National Health Service (NHS) called for volunteers across the U.K. More than 750,000 people responded, the biggest response since World War II. (Johnstone, 2020)

Catherine Johnstone, CBE, Chief Executive of Royal Voluntary Service, reports that “600,000 NHS Volunteer Responders are now ‘on duty’”

Stacey Dooley, journalist and filmmaker in her documentary “Lockdown heroes: Lying on a bed fighting for your life,” interviewed some of the people who decided that it was more important to help others than to avoid contact with others. What she is capturing is the soul of the human spirit that wants to pursue something meaningful and, in this case, often lifesaving.

The volunteers in the U.K. are doing everything imaginable from working in hospitals and care homes to providing meals to the homeless to going shopping for people who cannot get out because they are caring for loved ones at home.

Who are these people?

Some include trained medical providers others are professionals such as analysts, teachers, travel agents, among others, all doing what they can to provide support.

A calculations analyst makes hundreds of sandwiches in his kitchen, which he then distributes to the homeless while a financial regulator volunteers at a hospital, who admits at first, he was scared but now provides companionship and comfort to the patients. He shares that he has been combing one woman’s hair. He observes that “…when you are fighting for your life, care and compassion are what’s important.”

“…when you are fighting for your life, care and compassion are what’s important.”

A teacher and her friend, who is a travel agent, are making PPE scrubs for frontline workers. They report that they are working 60-hour weeks and have made thousands of scrubs and hats. They now have enlisted the help of 120 seamstresses!

One of the more remarkable stories is the South West Blood Bikes. These volunteers ride bright yellow motorcycles with the word “Blood” painted in large red letters on the bike’s front panel. They transport blood samples between hospitals, hospice providers, care homes, and now during the pandemic, pick up and deliver prescriptions to people who are not able to get to the pharmacy, along with a variety of other urgently needed supplies (SWBB.org.uk).

And, of course, there are volunteers around the globe from Canada to Dubai delivering meals.

Artem, a student at Moscow State University, delivered 100 bottles of antiseptic to the people of Krasnoznamensk among them veterans, elderly and families (Volunteers of Krasnoznamensk)

In Vancouver BC, the Coal Harbour Community Policing Centre (http://wechcpc.com/wechcpc/) recruits and trains volunteers to provide support to the Vancouver Police Department now patrolling neighborhoods dawned in “…gloves, washable masks, eye protection, [and] personal vests.”

Just as in the U.K. and elsewhere, it’s not hard to find volunteers doing remarkable things here in the United States, starting with Dan Owarzani…

a retired postal worker and veteran, now making deliveries for the Castle Garden Center, added four bags of groceries and some pre-made meals to a customer’s flower order. During her initial call to order flowers, she mentioned that she had not been out of her house in weeks. That’s when Dan took his cue. When asked why he did this, his response reveals a simple truth we all should embrace, “I would want someone to do the same for me.” (PowerOf.org)

Social media rings with stories like these. People are delivering groceries, providing virtual concerts, virtual birthday parties, happy hours, companionship, providing food and shelter, making PPE, teaching, and mentoring students.

May 8 marked the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, founded in 1828 by Jean Henri Dunant

Today, nearly 12 million volunteers and 450, 000 staff are serving about 160 million people. The volunteers are responding to emergencies to include earthquakes, conflicts, migration crises, and health epidemics.

I’ll stop here as I have now well exceeded the recommended 1000-word limit for blogs. Suffice it to say; volunteers are providing valuable and critical support to millions of people around the globe. It’s amazing to see how people from all walks of life, cultures, and traditions are working together to survive this horrible event.

If properly trained, what could volunteers be doing for the people living and working in nursing homes?

In the field of aging and, in particular, in long-term care communities, we need to get serious about training a cadre of “super” volunteers who will take on critical responsibilities that will provide valuable and meaningful support to paid staff who are operating at or beyond the brink of exhaustion. Just like the financial regulator who rolled up his sleeves to help, dawning PPE, then walks into a hospital to visit with patients and even in some cases comb patient’s hair. Hence, our cities and towns are home to many similar such people who, given the opportunity and training, are ready and willing to roll up their sleeves too.

 Later, this year, via the Aging in America (AiA2020) Virtual Conference, I, along with colleagues, will be presenting research that offers empirical evidence that personalized volunteer activities and the use of psychotropic drugs and other quality measures are correlated. I’ll write more about this in an upcoming article. In the meantime, I will continue to speak out for nurturing strong, well-managed volunteer workforces!

I now offer online training for long-term care volunteers at VolunCheerLeader.net.

If you would like to preview the course, please let me know [email protected],

In addition, be sure to listen to the VolunCheerLeader Podcast each week!

Until next time, take care and congratulations to the Class of 2020!


BBC –  “Lockdown heroes: ‘Lying on a bed fighting for your life’” Documentary film by Stacey Dooley. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/0de0f064-00d5-4df1-ba20-375ffc1e5965 May 7, 2020

Johnstone, C. (5-5-2020) “From Supporting the Home Front to the NHS Front Line – the Charity leading Britain’s Biggest Volunteer Mobilisation since WW2” Retrieved from https://blog.insidegovernment.co.uk/volunteer-mobilisation May 7, 2020

PowerOf (2020) “Veteran surprises customer by delivering groceries and hot food with her flowers” Retrieved from https://www.power-of.org/explore May 7, 2020

South West Blood Bikes – Retrieved from https://www.swbb.org.uk/ May 7, 2020

Volunteers of Krasnoznamensk – Retrieved from https://vk.com/volunteer143090?w=wall-193484255_182 May 7, 2020

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