When Margie’s Closet launched last February, Jacob Nash was elated. The founder of this volunteer-led program was finally realizing his dream of providing the trans community with donated clothing so individuals without funds would have access to a new wardrobe.
And then came the pandemic.
When COVID-19 arrived in Ohio in March, the roster of volunteers on which Margie’s Hope relied suddenly fizzled out.
“Since the pandemic hit, we have received calls with regard to continued donations, but we have nobody that wants to go and pick them up,” says Nash. “We don’t have folks that can help with sorting and organizing things.”
Margie’s Closet struggled. And it’s not alone.
In September, members of the Cleveland Queer Council—a coalition of more than 20 LGBTQ+ nonprofits in Northeast Ohio—met to discuss COVID-19 related challenges. Many reported a large decrease—up to 75% in some cases—in volunteer hours.
In fact, of the 12 respondents to a survey taken by the council’s members, five reported a decrease in volunteers, while five saw their volunteer count remain about the same. Like Margie’s Closet, all of the nonprofits on the council depend on volunteers to varying degrees to run programs, raise funds, recruit new members, and help with administrative duties. A decrease is a huge hit to their ability to run efficiently and help the communities they serve.
Karen Hewitt, deputy director of Columbus-based Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC), initially reported a decrease in volunteers. KYC depends on volunteers for around 25% of its programming, housing, and support services for queer youth. When programs were still in-person at the onset of the pandemic, volunteers quickly began canceling their scheduled hours.
But as things moved to Discord, an online communications app with video chat and messaging capabilities, a surprising influx of new volunteers started flowing in, matching their desire to give back with a virtual environment safe from COVID-19 exposure.
“We’ve had more people want to do stuff since they have a little bit more downtime,” says Hewitt.
Like Margie’s Hope and Kaleidoscope, the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland saw an initial decrease in volunteers. About 20% of the Center’s workforce are volunteers who help with their QYou youth program, SAGE group for seniors, and manning the front desk. When the first stay-at-home order was issued on March 22 and some programming moved online, the Center had little need for the volunteers. As staff began identifying tasks for volunteers to complete both virtually as well as safely in person, energy picked back up again in July. This kickstarted an exciting increase in individuals attending new volunteer orientation classes, with more sessions needing to be added to address the demand for engagement.
“I think that people are just hungry for community,” says Denise Astorino, the Center’s Community Engagement Coordinator. “I think they’re craving that connection, craving that want of helping and just being involved.”
From these expressed variations in volunteering levels between organizations during the pandemic, a new idea emerged: a volunteer sharing program. The program connects volunteers from organizations who have volunteers to spare with partner organizations in need of more help. As long as the organizations don’t conflict with each other’s mission statements, the sharing of volunteers is fair game.
“The idea came from conversations that people in the community organizations were having saying, We have people, we don’t have people, we have assignments, we don’t have much to do right now,” Astorino explains. “Right now, we’re building a sense of support, connection and community within the organizations themselves and the [pool of]volunteers.”
Astorino put the word out in a newsletter she sends to her volunteers, posted about it on social media, and approached a few organizations to see if they were interested in taking part. While the program is still in its beginning stages and details are being firmed up, initial interest was immediate with organizations reaching out to Astorino with various volunteer opportunities.
Nash says taking advantage of the volunteer share could really help Margie’s Hope right now. They have an opportunity to open a storefront for Margie’s Closet in the Studio West 117 development that’s in the works on the Lakewood/Cleveland border, but the volunteer shortage has prevented them from getting organized.
“I’m just hoping that we can get some folks to maybe come along and help a little bit with the clothing because we still need to do some sorting,” he says.
Astorino is optimistic that the volunteer share program might fill needs just like Nash describes. She plans on continuing to get the word out and hopes that news of the program will spread, even beyond the pandemic.
“Our volunteers really are the cornerstone of all these organizations, and the way we work with them needs to adapt to where we are now,” says Astorino. “The more solidarity that we show and the more support that we give each other is just going to make all of our organizations stronger.”
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets, including The Buckeye Flame.
- To learn more about volunteering, please visit https://lgbtcleveland.org/about-us/become-a-volunteer/
- Wear a mask.