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All in a Day’s Work: the United Way of Southeast Alaska’s Day of Caring 2014

Written by Geoff Kirsch

“How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” - Anne Frank

A typical workday lasts eight hours—but if you combine the efforts of 50 people over that time, suddenly one day becomes 400 person-hours long. What if those workers are volunteers, focusing their concentrated man and womanpower on improving the community?

The result would look like the United Way of Southeast Alaska’s Day of Caring, an annual event—this year, held on Thursday, October 2—in which local businesses encourage their employees to spend one workday volunteering at various non-profit organizations in Juneau. 

With the goal of growing volunteerism throughout Southeast Alaska, each year the United Way matches workplace teams from businesses and other non-profits with specific daylong volunteer projects. Day of Caring volunteers spruce up hallways, meeting rooms and offices, clean and sanitize children’s playrooms, landscape, paint, pick up trash and (this being Alaska) build things.

“Volunteers come in and bust out in a day something we need to do but probably wouldn’t ever get to do without shutting down our programming,” said Jorden Nigro, Deputy Director of SAIL (Southeast Alaska Independent Living).

One of last year’s Day of Caring projects involved building custom-designed wheelchair-inclusive picnic tables for SAIL and Wildflower Court seniors’ residence. This year, explained, Tristan Knutson-Lombardo, program director for ORCA, SAIL’s adaptive sports and recreation program, Day of Caring volunteers will refurbish the safety straps on ORCA’s sit skis.

“We’re also trying to build some covered bike storage,” he said. “In Juneau, that’s really important, keeping our gear dry.”

“Of course, the Day of Caring serves other purposes aside from free labor—which is also great, don’t get me wrong,” Nigro interjected. “But it also gives people a better idea of what service organizations are out there.”

Indeed, dozens of nonprofit organizations operate in Juneau, each with its own mission: from eldercare to youth initiatives, adult literacy to early childhood education, food programs to clothing banks and everything in between. Volunteers keep these organizations running smoothly, particularly those with limited staff and budget.

“We’re a pretty small non-profit doing a pretty big job,” said Rachel Brown, volunteer coordinator at AWARE (Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies), a longtime Day of Caring participant.

“We do everything ourselves—not only programming, but day-to-day things like recycling, cooking, admin, childcare, you name it. Without volunteers we wouldn’t be able to do all that.”

Whether they donate special skills and talents or just tackle a seemingly “unimportant” project like Spring cleaning—“there’s always Spring cleaning to do around here, no matter what season,” Brown said—volunteer efforts make a tangible difference.

“Every year, the Day of Caring uplifts our space; in turn, the people we serve feel uplifted,” she said. “We’re very lucky and very appreciative.”

This year’s Day of Caring involved nearly 75 volunteers from five businesses – City and Borough of Juneau, First National Bank Alaska, Shattuck & Grummett Insurance, University of Alaska Southeast, and Wells Fargo – working on ten projects.

“More volunteers, more projects, more workplaces and new workplaces participating,” said Day of Caring organizer and United Way of Southeast Alaska’s resource development director Jennifer Treadway.

Indeed, this year’s Day of Caring spilled over into a second day, with three volunteer projects on Saturday, Oct. 4. And, for the first time, it will spread to Ketchikan.

“Oh! We also got new LIVE UNITED t-shirts sponsored by Malia Hayward, StateFarm Insurance agent!” said Treadway.

While volunteerism is the lifeblood of any non-profit agency, the Day of Caring is as much about those who donate time, as it is those who receive it. The Day of Caring provides businesses a unique opportunity for pro-social corporate citizenship and building a culture of volunteerism among employees. It’s also a meaningful, hands-on teambuilding experience.

“You’re outside, working together, expending physical energy,” said Kate Wolfe, director of children and youth services for REACH, which offers information, referrals, support and services for people with developmental delay or disabilities.

Not only did REACH receive a volunteer workplace team at last year’s Day of Caring; they also supplied one.

“REACH has always benefitted from United Way volunteers, so we thought it would be nice to return the favor,” Wolfe said. “And it wound up turning into an impromptu community event for our staff.”

“From the beginning, the idea was to raise awareness of community need and figure out the private sector’s role in filling that need,” said Max Mertz of Elgee Rehfeld Mertz, who helped establish the Day of Caring in Juneau back in the early 1990s.

“It’s great to see the tradition continue.”

But of course, the job of advancing the common good is never done, let alone fully completed in one day.

“We get to talk with our partner agencies about their needs, not just for the Day of Caring, but bigger picture,” said Treadway.

The United Way of Southeast Alaska is an umbrella organization that, in conjunction with its 30-plus local non-profit partners, strives to create lasting change in the areas of education, income and health. To that end, United Way board members always serve as Day of Caring volunteers (several also volunteer as mentors in the United Way’s reading tutor program, as well as other local volunteer efforts). 

Does United Way staff also volunteer at the Day of Caring?

“Kind of—we run around all day bringing snacks and drinks to the teams,” she said.

“Most of these projects are outdoors in Southeast Alaska in October, so we make sure everyone has plenty of coffee.”

For more information, visit the United Way’s web site at unitedwayseak.org; to donate visit unitedwayseak.org/donate.

Interested in volunteering? Visit “Get Connected” (getconnected.unitedwayseak.org) a social media-style volunteer engagement and management platform linking prospective volunteers with community organizations throughout the region.