Volunteers serve a record number of hours for the third year in a row

Monday, February 20, 2012 | 2:06 p.m. CST; updated 9:35 p.m. CST, Monday, February 20, 2012

COLUMBIA — Columbia Health Department volunteer Tyler Walton believes the more you volunteer, the more needs you see.

"Being sensitive to the needs in your community is always a good thing," Walton said. "It causes you to be a more compassionate person."

Walton, a sexual and relational health advocate, is one of the estimated 6,000 volunteers who helped set and break the record for recorded hours of service in Columbia for the third year in a row. According to last month’s volunteer hour report for fiscal year 2011, volunteers have broken the record once again for hours of service with the City of Columbia, sharing 49,885 hours.

Leigh Britt, the city's neighborhood services manager, said that although the direct cause of the 3.7 percent increase in hours during fiscal 2011 is unknown, there are some variables that have played a part in the increase.

"I think generally, our community grows a little bit every year," Britt said. "And just our population base increases. We also just have a lot of great opportunities and city staff that want to continue those volunteer programs."

Britt said Columbia’s three-year trend of increased volunteering hours comes from a combination of consistent cooperation, Columbia's size and fresh ideas.

"Every year or two we come up with a brand new program that ends up generating both a lot of hours and a lot of volunteer interest," Britt said. "I think people volunteer for a whole number of reasons. Some people want to learn something new, maybe they have an environmental interest, so volunteering is a way to carry that out."

The Parks and Recreation Department continues to offer the most volunteering opportunities, appealing to residents with festivals and events such as the Special Olympics, and training opportunities such as TreeKeepers.

Many departments, such as Public Works and the Columbia Police Department, saw an increase in volunteers, but it was the Department of Public Health and Human Services that had the greatest increase in volunteer hours — 3,193, which was a 1,843-hour difference from last year.

The administrative/health department aide section of the Public Health and Human Services Department had the greatest overall number of volunteer hours.

Maureen Coy, health educator for the department, said she thinks volunteer hours have increased because the department is getting more master's-level students who want internships and need 360 hours of work.

The students who volunteer at the department are usually working on a service-learning project, which is a requirement for the class, or internships to gain experience for their careers.

"Some of the students take away a whole new level of understanding of what it is to work out in the real world," Coy said. "And in the case of the Health Promotion Department, they get a taste of what it takes to do education, presentations and how to interact with various audiences."

Walton said students participating in service-learning projects for classes sometimes help with events such as Hot Topic night, where teens 14 to 17 discuss topics such as alcohol, drugs, sex and relationships.

"Columbia Public Schools teach abstinence-only education," Walton said. "But a lot of students choose to start having sex before they graduate, and the Columbia Health Department wants to give them further education about choices they're going to start making."

Walton volunteers with the department and has been doing volunteer work with his church for organizations such as Rainbow House and Welcome Home for years. 

"My faith, I think, plays a big role in wanting to connect with people and serve other people," Walton said. "And so, I don’t think it's completely independent. The actual opportunities, I don't know if they were connected, but they both play towards the same life goals and missions that I have for myself."

It is important to invest in other people's lives, Walton said, and volunteering is a tangible way to step out of the "selfish existence" people get caught up in. In addition to his volunteering, Walton has also applied to join the Peace Corps to do HIV/AIDS relief work overseas.

"I think one of the most valuable things we’re given as humans is the time we have," Walton said. "And so, to use that time wisely, using it to the benefit of others is really important."

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