Many factors drive decision to volunteer

·8 min read

Jul. 31—Volunteerism is a calling to many in the Susquehanna Valley.

From fire department and fire police personnel to hospital staff, community revitalization groups, environmental watchdogs and local student participants in cleanup campaigns, these individuals think nothing of putting aside their jobs or normal daily activities to help others.

The motivations driving volunteerism, and the reasons why volunteers stayed on or stepped away during the COVID-19 pandemic can vary from person to person.

Research by Richard J. Harnish, Penn State University professor of psychology, has determined six essential reasons why people volunteer: Core values, understanding, social, career, protection and enhancement.

Harnish approached the study from a perspective of functionalism. "What that means is we hold certain attitudes or beliefs because they serve various functions for us," he said.

When a volunteer acts in an altruistic way, or a way that meets their humanitarian concerns, it speaks to their core values.

"Volunteering is a way to express an individual's values that are important to him or her," he said. "And so, perhaps, when talking to hospital volunteers or those who constantly volunteer at the community level they are doing so because they hold those values of altruism and concern for others, which is true and dear to their heart."

People who volunteer for an understanding reason, do so to share knowledge skills and abilities with those folks who need them.

Some people volunteer because they are concerned with social relationships. They might want to enhance their friendship network.

As personal friendships can benefit, so can careers.

"Volunteering might help you network, to advance your career goals, or maybe to gain from training that you might be lacking. Leadership skills, for example," Harnish said.

In some cases, people feel some guilt or anxiety over the good fortunes that they have experienced.

"There are blessings that they have and here is an opportunity to give back," he said, explaining the protective motivation. "And by giving back, it reduces that level of anxiety or guilt over being more fortunate than other people."

Enhancement is another motive, Harnish said, related to personal goals. By becoming more involved in the community, a volunteer might be looking to grow personally, to give back and/or build a legacy.

"We found that among academics, it really drove the reason why they would volunteer in the community," Harnish said.

University teaching staff are evaluated in three areas: scholarship in teaching, scholarship in research, and scholarship of service.

Inner motivationLou VanGelder, of Northumberland, said he grew up in an atmosphere of volunteerism.

"My father belonged to the fire department in Danville, so at age 12 I was hanging out at the fire department and eventually became fire chief in Northumberland. I'm an EMT, almost a paramedic," he said.

VanGelder worked with the medics in Vietnam.

"I can't even imagine how many things I have volunteered to do in my lifetime," he said.

VanGelder's neighbor in Northumberland, Buzz Meachum did not have a similar upbringing.

"I don't recall any time in my life as a young person that anybody in my family did anything out of the ordinary," he said. "My parents were busy raising kids and working. So there wasn't the time.

"I just seemed to have a lot of free time, regardless of whatever kind of work I was in."

Meachum doesn't volunteer so people can pat him on the back.

He takes a low profile if possible, he said.

"I like to do as much anonymously as I can," Meachum said. "Plus, if people get the idea that you volunteer for a lot of stuff they will start calling you up and you'll learn how to say no, which I've already learned how to do.

"I do the things I like to do."

Meachum is on the board of T.I.M.E. in Milton now, doing property management and groundskeeping.

"The older I get the less sociable I am," he said candidly, "and I tend to find myself volunteering for things that don't really require me to spend a lot of time with other people."

Meachum does a lot of tombstone cleaning, from Norry to Mifflinburg and Beaver Springs, New Columbia, and Milton.

"I've probably cleaned over 400 tombstones in the past four years," he said. "I've bought a power washer. If I have the time I'll get in my car and drive through a cemetery. If I see a flag. I do veterans free. I see a flag, I do see what kind of shape it's in. If I can do something I will.

"I just finished the William Cameron family in Lewisburg. Gosh, that took days."

There is no religious aspect to why Meachum volunteers.

The goal every day is to give more than you take, and that's a good way to live, he said.

One of the slogans he uses is: The best gift you can ever give someone is your time because you are giving them something you'll never get back.

"I like doing things anonymously because I don't want any expectation," he said. "I get the satisfaction of doing things."

"It's hard to do without being found out. I find it very satisfying. My life has been good. I'm just happy to do what I can for those that need it. You get paid back in weird ways."

Volunteering is almost kind of a spiritual experience for Meachum.

He said a life of gratitude is the way to live.

"There is always something to be grateful for, no matter how crappy your life may seem," Meachum said. "There are always people worse off than you."

VanGelder agreed with Meachum, saying there is much in the world that needs to be done and nobody seems to want to do it.

"I'm here to do it," he said. "Whatever I can. I wish I could do more."

The food bank at Saint John's Lutheran Church in Danville is his latest joy, he said.

At St. John's, VanGelder said, the volunteers don't ask questions. "If you can get to my door, you are leaving with something," he said. "You will get what you need. I wish we could give more."

"We are helping a great number of people here in the Central Susquehanna Valley. It breaks my heart to hear the stories about the people that need assistance."

VanGelder sets up the food bank room, but it's not big enough for the food that's in there, it ebbs and flows but he estimated it's probably worth about $25,000.

"We purchase everything. We don't get anything donated except bread. Other than that everything is purchased through grants or monetary donations," he said.

The pandemicMeachum and his wife are rescue road warriors — they transfer pets, moving them from kill shelters in the Midwest across the country to the east. A lot end up in New York and Connecticut.

"That had to stop for the longest time," he said. "We meet a caravan and get the dogs that we are assigned and take them to Bloomsburg. Then someone in Bloomsburg takes them. It was sad to me when this program was delayed."

Meachum volunteered at Saint John's Lutheran in Danville for food distribution and had a heartbreaking reaction similar to VanGelder's. He said it was so heartbreaking he couldn't do it anymore.

On years when I can afford it, Meachum said, "I give gift cards from Giant. Or give those cards to police officers and tell them to give the cards to people they know who can use them.

"I do this a number of years. It satisfies me and keeps me anonymous."

VanGelder said attendance by those in need at the food bank dropped initially during the pandemic, but the number of volunteers stayed about the same.

It's all about the kidsAbout any day of the week at any time of the day, Slade Shreck, of Sunbury, is volunteering somewhere to make his town better. He and Jody Ocker were co-chairs of Sunbury's semiquincentennial celebration earlier this month.

Shreck was born and raised in Sunbury. He and his siblings were raised by a single mom.

"We were a poor single family," he recalled. "My mom always said give back because people gave to us."

As he grew up, all the while staying in Sunbury, "I always enjoyed giving back," Shreck said. He volunteers with the Shikellamy School District.

"I want to show the kids how rewarding giving back can be and how much fun you can have," he said.

That's why Shreck runs donkey basketball and the bonfire.

"I do it for the kids," he said.

Shreck said he doesn't take money and that usually anything he does, the money comes out of his own pocket. "I love Sunbury," he said.

"I'm always helping somebody do something," he said. "Any way I can help. If it's a fundraiser, I'll help."