Last year, I hesitantly stepped into a role running a pilot volunteer leadership program called Project Lead. The UPS grant-funded program would require the Volunteer Center’s fledgling Project Lead to expand opportunities for community members to serve by recruiting 200 volunteer leaders and mobilizing 10,000 volunteers over an 11-month period. This was an ambitious project to say the least. Considering these numbers, my blood pressure spiked and I started sweating. Could we do it? Part of me worried that it was too much to ask community members to step up to lead volunteer projects. Would volunteers want to take on the challenge to lead projects or would it seem burdensome to a community with a full plate of social justice activities?
Over the past several months, the answer has become clear, as over 100 volunteers in our community have come through our doors to learn how to become better leaders and to inspire their fellow community members to serve. What has been so exciting about Project Lead is how community volunteers have drawn on their unique skills and social justice passions to lead projects that marry their interests with pressing community needs.
Bill McBride, a retired IT whiz, drew on his experience solving community network jams and coaching youth soccer teams to lead a project called Senior Tech Day. Senior Tech Day is a bimonthly volunteer effort that matches tech-savvy youth with seniors to help teach fundamental 21st Century skills like texting, ipad navigation and photo messaging. Under Bill’s leadership, the program has doubled in size and happens twice as often. The -based project presented by the YouthSERVE program is now bursting with returning youth volunteers and seniors who have come to depend on consistent tech support.
Before Bill came on board, we were trying to offer Senior Tech Day with staff supervision and we simply didn’t have the hours to offer the project consistently. Now with Bill’s supportive influence and techy know-how, kids have a regular avenue to volunteer in a leadership role and seniors have more opportunities to learn the tools they need to stay connected.
Volunteer leadership is a curious phenomenon; most leaders start out self-conscious, wondering if they could possibly step up to lead other people during a project. There is a moment, however, when a volunteer leader falls in love with a project and sees how it is positively impacts the community, that they gain the courage to embrace their insecurities and lead anyway. This happened with Bill, who marveled to me after leading his first tech day about the maturity of the kids working on the project and how much the seniors appreciated this service.
Leaders are regularly surprised by the remarkable community transformation they help set in motion by the simple but powerful act of leading others in service. Ceanne Smith, a Watsonville Native and social justice student at San Jose State Universitty has seen the volunteer project she leads at Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry and Kitchen grow from the ground up. Thanks to her committed leadership style and engaging presence, Ceanne is now supervising a consistent core of 10 Watsonville youth who return weekly to help feed their community. This is a major accomplishment in the volunteer world, where retention is often a struggle.
With the extension of volunteer leadership, we have even seen a dent in the proverbial volunteer retention problem, where 1 in 3 volunteers typically drop out because their needs as a volunteer aren’t met. Volunteers leaders change this pattern by offering volunteer-centered leadership that is devoted to giving community volunteers the most rewarding experience possible. Youth volunteers working with trained leaders like Ceanne start to see how their work is valuable in the community and they want to keep coming back to serve. It’s a chain reaction of good that starts with one person taking it upon themselves to create the right conditions for volunteers to serve.
With spring on its way, new projects are in the works that need leaders, including a HeadStart garden project at in Watsonville and a new program in Santa Cruz that will teach core literacy skills to low-income kids who are struggling academically.
I love working with new volunteer leaders to find out how we can best put their skills and passions to use to tackle our community’s most pressing problems. I hope community members will join me at our upcoming Volunteer Leader Training on Wednesday, March 28 at the Santa Cruz Volunteer Center to learn how they can step up, connect and make a big difference.Volunteer leaders can attend one training and then shadow a project leader to learn more about a project of interest. New leaders are also invited to co-lead a project with a partner as they develop their project leadership skills and get their feet wet.
Some people think that they have to be a CEO to make a good leader, but in fact, great leaders come from all walks of life and professions. All it takes is be a great leader is excellent people skills, reliability and a commitment to serving your community. This commitment can be as little as one project per quarter.
Looking back at this past year, I am inspired by the unique potential of each person to transform our community when they lead with the goal of empowering volunteers and showing them how their work matters. With leadership like this, our community is truly in good hands.
- Want to help lead an awesome volunteer project like Pantry Projects at Loaves and Fishes? Register for our Volunteer Leader Training and get started on your leadership path!
- Do your kids need community service hours? If you child is between the ages 11-18 yrs, you can register him or her for a YouthSERVE Project led by a volunteer leader like the weekly Youth Pantry Project in Watsonville (Wednesdays 2-4pm) or Senior Tech Day in Santa Cruz, Saturday, April 14th and 28th from 1-3pm @ Louden Nelson Community Center