Volunteering: From lending a hand to challenging the system

Nettie Fisher (middle) stands with her boyfriend Ian Cochrane (left), and land owner Phillip Brown (right) in front of the Henderson County Courthouse during Carolinas Land Coalition's 2015 campaign. (Photo courtesy Nettie Fisher).
Attorney Justin Sigmon provides pro bono legal services by volunteering with the Mountain Area Volunteer Lawyer program. He is shown here, right, assisting client Dennis Roe with his will. (Photo courtesy Pisgah Legal)
Attorney Justin Sigmon, right, assists client Dennis Roe with his will. Pro bono legal services are provided through the Mountain Area Volunteer Lawyer program. Photo courtesy Pisgah Legal Services.

Everybody needs to be needed. We want to be of use to our friends, family, community and the world at large, to have a purpose and to know that we’re making a positive impact.

What that impact should look like, however, can vary widely: For one person, it may be stuffing thank-you letters into envelopes; for another, it’s crisis response advocacy. Some work to alleviate social woes; others aim to change what they believe is a fundamentally broken system.

But whatever form it takes, both pro bono service and volunteering are integral components of community resilience. And the Asheville area offers an abundance of both opportunities to get involved and ideas about what constitutes volunteer service. Here’s a look at a few local volunteer programs and some ways of getting connected.

All hands on deck

On Feb. 1, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County launched a new digital platform for Hands On Asheville-Buncombe, the organization’s volunteer center. And while the concept isn’t new, the online database gives local folks an easy way to connect with a host of volunteer opportunities — and local nonprofits access to the pro bono power they need to get the job done on the street and to look lively when it’s time to write grants and show some numbers.

“It’s a great way for other nonprofits to almost have their own mobile site within our site,” says Elisabeth Bocklet, United Way’s marketing and communications director. “What I love about it is that it gets people out of the silo of what they normally think about when it comes to volunteering, because so many opportunities with varying levels of engagement and skills are listed side by side.”

When potential volunteers register and set up a free account, they are prompted to choose causes they’re passionate about from a list that includes such categories as “veterans,” “community,” “environment,” “basic needs,” “justice & legal” and about a dozen more. They’re then prompted to cite the types of tasks that interest them and, finally, to “fan” their favorite organizations and share their choices via social media.

One month after the launch date, 106 Buncombe County-based nonprofits were registered and using the platform, but Bocklet emphasizes that there’s no limit, and United Way expects that number to grow. To qualify, organizations must pay a $50 annual fee and meet certain criteria, including having 501(c)(3) status and providing services and volunteer opportunities in Buncombe.

The site notifies registered volunteers when organizations or causes they’ve “fanned” post something new and reminds them of upcoming events they’ve already committed to.

The data can be sorted in a number of ways to suit the user’s needs. Sorting by “organizations” displays all upcoming volunteer opportunities on a particular organization’s page. “Opportunities” lays them out based on the user’s “fanned” causes, interests and organizations, and “events” pulls up a calendar showing specific dates and time commitments — a useful feature for those with tight schedules who may have limited time to contribute at random intervals.

And once someone starts volunteering, “You get a dashboard of your actual service committed,” Bocklet explains. “It will say, ‘So far this year, you have done X number of hours in these things, and this is the impact you’ve had on our community.’”

This feature, she points out, is a boon for students looking to catalog school service projects and for job seekers to use on résumés. “So if you’ve been unemployed for a year, you can still say, ‘I’ve been busy; I’ve been contributing.’”

Strictly professional

“It’s important to note that the longer a person is willing to volunteer with an organization, the more meaningful the work they might get,” notes Jim Barrett, executive director of Pisgah Legal Services.

Accordingly, the opportunities posted on Hands On run the gamut from an afternoon sorting and repackaging food at MANNA FoodBank to helping staff Our VOICE’s sexual violence crisis line or becoming an Affordable Care Act navigator with Pisgah Legal — both of which require 20 hours or more of training and minimum time commitments.

“A lot of people don’t want to volunteer just to stuff envelopes,” says Barrett. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve kept the volunteers we have, because the human stories they deal with are very compelling.”

Established in 1978, Pisgah Legal provides free counsel concerning basic needs to people experiencing financial hardship.

Besides the more than 400 lay volunteers who contribute thousands of hours each year, the nonprofit also manages the Mountain Area Volunteer Lawyer program, a network of over 300 attorneys offering pro bono services for cases that meet the nonprofit’s criteria.

Together, staff attorneys and MAVL participants served more than 15,000 Western North Carolina residents last year, says Jaclyn Kiger, the program’s managing attorney.

Pisgah Legal, says Barrett, uses these volunteer attorneys “for areas of law we’re not experts in,” or when the staff is simply overwhelmed with cases.

The North Carolina State Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct urge all licensed attorneys to offer pro bono services to the poor each year, says Zephyr Jost, an attorney with Dungan, Kilbourne & Stahl who volunteers with MAVL.

“A community is only as strong as its members,” she proclaims. “So if its members are just a bunch of professionals who are checked out and have no part in anything, that will be reflected in a weakened community.” And whether it’s marriage, divorce, buying a house or writing a will, almost everyone will have an encounter with the law at some point, Jost observes — and it’s often at a particularly difficult time. Without access to legal assistance, notes Jost, things like medical crises, unemployment, eviction or domestic violence can easily put people on a downward spiral.

“When I think about community resiliency, the services that Pisgah Legal provides play a very important role,” she says.

For attorneys, however, it’s a balancing act, stresses Barrett. “I do think professionals and educated folks realize that they’ve had opportunities that others haven’t had,” he explains. But at the same time, lawyers can’t afford to “be known in the community as someone who takes every case with no charge.”

Thus, Pisgah Legal’s vetting process serves those who are seriously in need while helping MAVL attorneys sort out which pro bono cases to take.

Lawyers, though, aren’t the only local professionals volunteering their expertise to benefit their fellow citizens. The Asheville Design Center enlists urban planners, architects, engineers and others to create innovative local infrastructure solutions. The Western Carolina Medical Society Foundation’s Project Access coordinates volunteer physicians who provide comprehensive care to uninsured, low-income Buncombe County residents.

Meanwhile, local restaurants have also been active in promoting volunteer initiatives. “When we opened Cúrate, I literally received hundreds of donation requests within a few months,” says Elizabeth Button, who also co-owns Nightbell. Although they couldn’t afford to commit to them all, she explains, the owners were serious about developing a sustainable plan for providing pro bono service, and they’ve since launched several volunteer efforts.

The Downtown Welcome Table, a weekly meal hosted by the Haywood Street Congregation, feeds upward of 400 people each week. In June 2013, Button and her team enlisted other local restaurants to partner with the project, taking turns providing and cooking those meals.

“Cúrate cooked the first meal, followed by Blackbird, Market Place, Table, Cucina 24, Chai Pani and French Broad Chocolate Lounge,” says Button. The collaboration has grown to include 35 local restaurants, which contribute 350 hours of service per month.

To make the project more sustainable for restaurants, Button made arrangements with several distributors to obtain food at cost, and in the month running up to a particular restaurant’s shift, patrons are invited to make donations to help cover other costs.

With professionalism comes an opportunity to use one’s skills expressly for the benefit of others — which is a boon that far outlasts a paycheck. But in addition to professional skills, there’s a unique potential that comes with acclamation to be a change agent in one’s community.

“As an owner of Cúrate and Nightbell, we have an opportunity to use our voice in the community to make a difference,” says Button, adding that many local business owners are eager to make a positive impact, if they can just find the right bandwagon to jump on.

Making noise

Volunteering is generally seen as a laudable, benevolent activity that poses no particular threat to anyone. But sometimes, volunteers push the limits of what’s considered acceptable, aiming to change laws or policies they think are harmful.

“When you help more than 15,000 people in a given year, you see things that aren’t working systemically,” says Barrett; accordingly, Pisgah Legal also advocates for change. But finding volunteers for those efforts, he says, can be challenging.

“By nature, it’s easier to get a person to volunteer to pack lunches for children on the weekend, which is very tangible, than it is to enlist advocates for complicated issues like a living wage, which often entails advocating against their own interests — paying $10 for a hamburger at McDonald’s or what have you.”

And sometimes, advocacy crosses the line into outright civil disobedience.

“In my eyes, a law loses its validity the moment it works in favor of oppression and against the democratic voice of the people,” says James Tyson, a Warren Wilson College graduate who now lives in Charlotte. Tyson and fellow activist Bree Newsome drew national attention last summer when they illegally removed the Confederate battle flag that was being flown outside the Capitol in Columbia, S.C. Acting in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the two were protesting the murder of nine African-American worshippers in a church in Charleston, S.C.

“Civil disobedience,” he asserts, “is simultaneously an act of volunteerism and an act of liberation. Ignoring oppression is to pretend a world that isn’t real: It deludes our consciousness with irrationality.”

Meanwhile, even legal efforts to change the system require applying pressure. And MountainTrue, a local environmental nonprofit, regularly mobilizes volunteers to lobby lawmakers and confront corporations. “We’re a member-driven, grassroots organization, and volunteers are our lifeblood,” says communications director Karim Olaechea.

But when they’re not going head to head with elected officials, MountainTrue volunteers also get their hands dirty working to combat erosion and remove invasive plants.

This year, the nonprofit plans to launch a phone app for its Muddy Water Watch program that will empower citizens to report illegal runoff at construction sites. The app will forward those reports directly to city and county officials.

Volunteers have also played a key role in efforts to put pressure on Duke Energy concerning its coal-fired Lake Julian power plant. The Asheville Beyond Coal campaign, a joint effort with the Wenoca Sierra Club chapter, won a big victory last year when, after 3 1/2 years of online action, petitions and public demonstrations, the utility announced that it would close the plant by 2020. But the celebration, notes Olaechea, was short-lived since Duke promptly announced plans for a new natural gas-fueled facility in Campobello, S.C., tied to a transmission line that would cut through farms, forests and neighborhoods in the upstate and three WNC counties.

In response, MountainTrue helped organize community and neighborhood groups throughout the affected areas under the banner of the Carolina Land Coalition. “From canvassing and recruiting neighbors, coordinating and producing public events, writing letters to local newspapers, distributing window and yard signs, passing out fliers and hanging posters, volunteers were a driving force in that effort,” says Olaechea.

Nettie Fisher, a Hendersonville-based graphic designer and creative strategist whom Olaechea calls the campaign’s “MVP volunteer,” says: “The largest benefit to having volunteers support the campaign was that we were able to move at a rapid pace. Rather than waiting for budget approval from different oversight committees, we were able to take direction independently and make immediate plans for action.”

Fisher got involved after learning that her parents’ farm in Saluda sat smack in the path of the proposed transmission line. She wound up building the campaign’s website, designing and printing promotional materials, and consulting with MountainTrue on strategy. And when the utility announced a revised plan that canceled the controversial transmission line, it cited the 9,000 public comments received from the coalition’s supporters.

“Duke Energy is the largest public utility in the country,” Olaechea explains. “We’re never going to match them dollar for dollar, but with the support of our hardworking supporters and volunteers, we’ve secured some major victories.”

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About Jordan Foltz
Exploring the subtle and esoteric aspects of what drives and inspires people to take action— including religion, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

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