The COVID-19 pandemic created unknowns for individuals and organizations around the globe. Early on, the realization that human connection was essential became widespread, and organization leaders began to reimagine what volunteer service looked like in a global crisis.
Mark Storrey, chief executive officer of the Haven Humane Society in Redding, California, has been with the animal shelter for eight years. After 20 years in the Air Force, Storrey transitioned to helping animals find their forever homes with his family and four dogs.
The Haven Humane society has past experience in adapting to crisis, like the California Carr Fire. In times of crises, it’s rewarding to be able to help the community because it’s like an extended family, Mark said.
The shelter shut down when the COVID-19 pandemic began — but when it shelters more than 300 animals, people can’t just walk away.
It operated with a skeleton crew and a limited number of volunteers. Staff began to post photos and videos of the animals on their volunteer Facebook page to keep volunteers engaged — and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I think it really brought us together, even though we were apart, and it kept volunteers invested. As soon as we opened back up, it was like the volunteer floodgates lifted,” Storrey said.
More than two thousand miles across the U.S., United Way of East Central Iowa continued to unite the caring power of communities to invest in effective solutions that improve people’s lives — even in the middle of a pandemic.
Kayla Paulson serves as a retired and senior volunteer program director and volunteer engagement capacity builder at UWECI.
“The organization is really about helping people help people — we are that connector and that force that can help mobilize and deploy people,” Paulson said.
UWECI acted as an emergency volunteer center in the pandemic and let volunteers step in and step up where they were uniquely qualified. It partnered with Iowa Habitat for Humanity and leveraged their AmeriCorps members for disaster response efforts.
Both organizations are a part of the Points of Light Service Enterprise program, which is designed to help organizations leverage volunteers to achieve maximum operational efficiency and greater social impact. Due to the skills gained in becoming a certified Service Enterprise, a stronger foundation was in place for the transition needed to keep volunteers safe and engaged during the pandemic.
“Through the training we received from Points of Light, I think we made a lot of really positive changes,” Storrey said. “We’ve laid the groundwork to grow, and once we can actually socialize again, I think we’ll be able to start realizing even more potential,” he added.
Storrey expected to learn about recruiting and engaging volunteers during the program, but was pleasantly surprised to realize additional deficiencies and training opportunities. Shortly after, the Haven Humane staff started to make training videos for volunteers and future staff onboarding.
“I think that it really highlighted that we can take skills-based volunteers and we can really work with them by integrating them into the org chart and getting them more involved in the organization as a whole. I think it’s made us a much stronger team,” Storrey said.
“I want to thank Points of lIght for having the program. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it exceeded all my expectations and I think that our organization is a better organization because of it,” he added.
Volunteers have a variety of opportunities to get involved at the Haven Humane Society. From dog walking, cat socializing, assisting with the veterinary hospital and fundraising, volunteers are critical to the shelter, Storrey said, even the volunteers who show up and are allergic to the animals.
UWECI is a Service Enterprise Hub — an important partner in Points of Light’s capacity-building efforts — and helped other organizations in Iowa get certified and recertified as a Service Enterprise during the pandemic.
Due to UWECI’s leadership and hard work, other nonprofits like the Catherine McAuley Center — a shelter that provides supportive and educational services to immigrants, refugees and women in Iowa — had the volunteer infrastructure and network needed to adapt when food pantries shut down.
“If they didn’t already have those pieces in place, and they didn’t already invest the time and staff training, they wouldn’t have been able to switch and quickly adapt,” Paulson said.
“I really love being able to watch our volunteers be the best version of themselves,” Paulson said. “So whether it’s the Service Enterprise and building the capacity of our nonprofits to better leverage volunteers or being able to respond as we continue to have disasters — I want to help my volunteers see that they have transferable skills that they have built up over a lifetime,” she added.
Exciting things are on the horizon for both organizations.
The Haven Humane Society will host its annual Putt for Paws golf tournament in July 2021 to raise funds and promote animals available for adoption. It will be named after Daniel Zanine, the organization’s former chief financial officer, who passed away from the coronavirus the day before Thanksgiving in 2020.
UWECI plans to celebrate volunteers during its Time for Art: A Celebration of Volunteers event in April 2021. Participants can virtually celebrate and bid on art from upcoming artists in Eastern Iowa. Its annual Day of Caring will take place in May 2021.
“With volunteering, you can see immediate rewards. You can get positive reinforcement within a couple days — So that’s why I hope everybody gives back and everybody chooses to find a space that they can help others,” Paulson said.