This is part two in a multi-part article series The Community Voice is publishing, exploring some of the “silver linings” found in the dark cloud, that being the Covid-19 pandemic. While it is easy to get discouraged, anxious and fearful during a time like this, it can help to reflect on some of the good that is happening as a result of this crisis. Last week our news team reporter Cassandra May Albaugh considered the significant, positive environmental impacts that are affecting our world. Less traffic has resulted in less pollution, not to mention fewer and a decreased reliance on fossil fuels. Only time will tell if these positive effects will continue as individuals realize how much they can do from home and what an impact less cars on the road can have.
This week, we look at how this pandemic inspires people into giving back. Stories abound of neighbors helping neighbors, the increase of volunteers, and many people donating food, supplies, masks and other needed items. This is true in our own county as well.
“We’ve seen a huge influx in volunteerism since the Covid-19 pandemic started,” says Elaine Tokolahi, Director of Volunteer Services for the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership (CVNL). “In Sonoma County, hundreds of individuals are stepping up to fill urgent volunteer needs. When we post an opportunity, it is typically filled within hours.”
As is often the case when a disaster strikes, such as the large wildfires the county faced in recent years, the number of people registering to volunteer through CVNL’s volunteer portal exponentially increased, even while many of those same people have reason to be anxious about their own circumstances.
“More than half of the volunteers registering on our portal are new,” says Tokolahi. “Others have signed up to help as disaster volunteers in the past and are being communicated with and placed in volunteer positions where there is the most need. Two large volunteer populations that typically step up to help – seniors and students – are sheltering in place or learning from home. A large percentage of new volunteers are ages 25-50.”
Tokolahi believes several factors are playing a role in why people are stepping up now, including the public awareness campaign in the media for the need of volunteers; people feeling helpless at home and wanting to make a difference; as well as having more time, now that they are not working. Many people want to step up to help, but do not always know where to turn. This is when an Emergency Volunteer Center (EVC) is critical in matching volunteers with community needs. An EVC is staffed by trained emergency personnel who provide volunteers a one-stop location to determine where help is needed. When an emergency happens, the State of California makes a declaration and Emergency Volunteer Centers are activated through the county Office of Emergency Services and Emergency Operations Centers (EOC). The EOC is the central point where emergency services such as Police, Fire, etc. are coordinated. In Sonoma County, CVNL operates the Emergency Volunteer Center. They are currently activated in Santa Rosa and have established an Emergency Volunteer Center hub out of their office. Here spontaneous volunteers are guided by EVC members through a training process and ultimately to a productive support role.
The CVNL hopes that some of these new volunteers may continue to want to serve, even after this immediate crisis is over.
“We are trying to be forward-looking and focus on the positive,” says Tokolahi. “This pandemic has literally forced the world to ‘press pause.’ We’re inspired because we are seeing people use this time to re-engage in their communities, and nonprofits are collaborating in innovative ways to continue mission delivery. We also find that many volunteers continue to serve long after
disasters ‘quiet down.’ There is a critical recovery phase following disasters where volunteers are needed to help rebuild community resiliency: most volunteers who sign up to help during the critical ‘response’ phase continue to serve during the recovery phase.”
Interested volunteers will be sworn in as Disaster Service Workers by the Volunteer Center on behalf of the County of Sonoma. After expressing interest, they will have a brief phone conversation with a staff member and then be given more information on next steps. Those who are forklift certified or have familiarity with equipment are especially valuable, but it is not required. Volunteers can sign up by visiting https://cvnl.org/covid19help.
“Even in the era of social distancing, we can still connect with our neighbors and offer support to those in need,” says Tokolahi. “Now more than ever, our communities need us to create change in ways that are both innovative and equitable. If you are unable to volunteer, consider donating to support COVID-19 disaster relief efforts. No matter how big or how small, any support you can offer is positive and impactful during these challenging times.”