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Oct. 26

Building a Stronger Community by Connecting Residents with Meaningful Volunteer Opportunities

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Hands On Orlando volunteers work together to build a structure at a local park.

Organizations around the country do incredible work. They focus on a variety of causes and important mission work. And while they use volunteers to achieve their mission, the mission is the main focus. Hands On Orlando, a Points of Light affiliate, does incredible work in their community, but they have an additional goal – to provide the highest quality volunteer experience possible.

The organization’s founder, Executive Director Chris Allen, was a TV news journalist covering human interest stories when he realized that while he got the inside access to the events, people in the community weren’t able to connect and take part in these wonderful opportunities. He founded Hands On Orlando as a way to engage local people in volunteer service.

“We started from nothing and now we are one of the leaders in the community for volunteer engagement,” said Kyle Trager, corporate citizenship manager. “We are just constantly figuring out how we can help the community and find opportunities to make it easier for people to find meaningful work.”

In the past few years, Hands On Orlando has activated volunteers in the face of both natural and man-made disasters. In preparing for Hurricane Irma, they drew on past experiences to make sure their volunteers were ready and informed.

“Preparation and communication is key,” Kyle said. “We work with the three lead agencies for hurricane response in a support function, pre-registering and managing unskilled volunteers who want to assist. We send an email blast in advance of the storm, and then stay in regular communication with volunteers throughout the immediate aftermath and weeks to come. Nothing turns a volunteer off more than an organization going silent, so we just keep sharing updates.”

While Hurricane Irma’s path shifted and the Orlando area received less impact than anticipated, Hands On Orlando still worked around the clock. Setting up an emergency operation center in Kyle’s kitchen, they did critical outreach to local nonprofits to see what was needed, and called upon volunteers to fill spots.

“We found out there was a lack of doctors and nurses at special-needs shelters during the storm,” said Kyle. “Hands On Orlando contacted the volunteers we knew of, as well as state government, to help coordinate response and support at these shelters.”

They’re also now focusing on helping people affected by Hurricane Maria, especially because central Florida has the second largest population of Puerto Ricans on the main land United States, and it’s growing every day.

“There are a lot of middle class people coming to the main land, and we’re trying to figure out how to best support those communities, both in terms of rebuilding their lives and helping to integrate them and introduce the idea of volunteering,” said Kyle. “We’re also trying to figure out how we can work with them to support their families back in Puerto Rico. It’s definitely going to be a mid-to-long-term recovery.”

And while Hands On Orlando works year round to prepare for natural events like hurricanes, there are unanticipated events they can never account for. When the mass shooting occurred at PULSE night club in June 2016, Hands On Orlando had to figure out how to take action under unprecedented circumstances.

“We learned that the difference between a natural disaster and a manmade disaster is that the manmade footprint is much smaller, but the emotional footprint is huge,” Kyle said. “It’s frustrating because people want to do something, but there’s often nothing to do. We wanted to create an outlet for people’s feelings and have some sort of an impact and community therapy through service.”

Hands On Orlando first created a large scroll of paper near the memorial for people to sign, share memories and write messages. They also did 49 service projects in memory of the 49 people who lost their lives, starting each project with a moment of silent for the victim. Since then, Hands On Orlando has reached out to Points of Light affiliates in London and Las Vegas, sharing the idea as a way of healing as each community dealt with their own respective tragedies.

Kyle says they pride themselves on being innovative, especially in the face of the unknown and great challenges. “I say we’re like a startup that just turned 18 years old. You just have to learn from everything and move on.”

Their constant growth and learning are evident. As one of the network leaders in corporate engagement, they are constantly working on projects that both benefit the community and provide amazing volunteer experiences.

One project that is special to the area is STEM Park – a 13.5-acre area of lake-front property owned by Hands On Orlando that is a perfect spot for team building. Since purchasing this land, volunteers have removed 22,000 pounds of debris, removed invasive species, planted natural plants, and worked to return the land to its natural state. The goal is to turn it into a learning space, so people can take part in STEM classes and understand the natural Floridian landscape. 

“STEM Park provides us amazing opportunities to engage volunteers,” Kyle said. “It’s so unique, and really helps build community.”

At the end of the day, that’s Hands On Orlando’s goal – to build community.

“Every day is a new challenge, but it’s so rewarding when someone calls and I’m able to help them get involved,” Kyle said. “We don’t know who is going to call us. We don’t know what door is going to open. We are just always trying to figure out how we can best help the community.” 

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