Serving those who are living through poverty or inequality has long been a focus of the volunteer sector. Many nonprofits concentrate their efforts on getting resources to those in poverty and working to build a more equitable world for those bearing the brunt of discriminatory, unjust or incomplete systems.
HandsOn Northwest North Carolina (HandsOn NWNC), a Points of Light Global Network affiliate, mobilizes people and organizations that inspire community change. Working with approximately 500 different nonprofits in a six-county area, HandsOn NWNC provides organizations with a wide variety of services that help them meet the challenge of their missions in the most effective and efficient way possible.
This includes offering leadership and professional development opportunities to staff and volunteers at all levels of the organization, as well as engaging and mobilizing approximately 5,000 volunteers a year in service across the network.
Amy Lytle, executive director at HandsOn NWNC, says, “We work with everyone; there is no age requirement to serve! We work with organizations large and small, and our network reaches out beyond our smaller-sized city to some of the more rural counties that surround Winston-Salem, NC. We work with companies, the school system, civic and religious groups. In terms of the organizations in our network, the vast majority of them are smaller or mid-sized, many of which serve a variety of marginalized communities and/or are led by people of color.”
Amy and the team at HandsOn NWNC are focused on building racial equity in volunteering in particular. At the end of 2020, they launched an ED Roundtable for organizations led by people of color. This self-directed and organized group is currently led by a participant volunteer leader, who is the founder of a small nonprofit that focuses on health, wellness and access to healthy food in her neighborhood.
With support from the Starbucks Foundation and Points of Light, the Roundtable is just one way that HandsOn NWNC tries to support smaller, grassroots organizations and increase racial equity within both the local nonprofit sector as well as the community.
From larger efforts like the Roundtable to local efforts with individuals, HandsOn NWNC is making an impact in the fight against poverty and inequality. Take Rosa Johnson, for example, one of the volunteer leaders that HandsOn NWNC works with. Rosa has single-handedly created a small urban community garden across the street from a local Title 1 school. Over the past year, HandsOn NWNC has formed a relationship with Rosa and has come alongside her to help mobilize additional resources — including donations and volunteers — to help make the garden more sustainable.
Amy Lytle says, “Service has the power to unite people across differences and increase social capital; it builds empathy and can inform other forms of civic engagement, such as voting and public policy advocacy. Service can transform individual lives while also working to change systemic issues.”
Another Points of Light Global Network affiliate, HandsOn Mexico, exists to inspire, motivate and support people interested in investing their time to improve the quality of life for disadvantaged people, animals and the environment. By connecting people with organizations related to their interests and skills and promoting programs, events and campaigns to highlight what people are doing for their communities, they uplift and inspire others to get involved.
Blanca Ramírez, acting executive director at HandsOn Mexico, shares a few notable projects. “Recently we worked in conjunction with the YMCA to support a group that lives in a rural area of the city called Ajusco. In this particular neighborhood, it is fairly common to find young people using drugs or who are part of criminal groups. The YMCA decided to build a community center to provide more options for the local youth and their families to spend their free time. We contributed to projects such as restoring the community center, building a garden and creating a soccer field. The community center also provides leadership development services, activities and workshops to guide people in how to start their own business.”
HandsOn Mexico is working to tackle poverty in creative ways, too. The nonprofit works with a community organization in Xochimilco, initially collaborating with the Umbral Axochiatl organization to clean the canals and remove plastic waste. The villagers welcomed the volunteers and encouraged them to continue caring for the area. The objective, in addition to maintaining a clean natural space to create the right environmental characteristics to revive the axolotl, a native animal, is for the inhabitants to return to work their lands in a sustainable way. This involves using the natural resources that the area offers, resuming ancestral techniques and inviting scientists to implement best practices that allow obtaining organic products and recovering some native crops that were being lost.
Thus, the Xochimilco inhabitants became small businesspeople, forming a group called “Grupo Tlacuache.” This project created an interdependent cycle in which the environment is conserved through the sustainable commercialization of the natural resources of the area and the economic income for the families in the area is improved.
Blanca Ramírez advises people to “include time in your schedule for volunteering at least once per month. It’s worth spending time on a cause you care about. Every other activity you do in your life will be more meaningful if you volunteer often.” And to other nonprofit leaders, she says, “Remember that your work is impacting more lives than you imagine. Your effort is inspiring others and changing lives. That donation, that activity you organized where people met new friends living in different circumstances than theirs, is making a difference in the beneficiaries’ lives as well as in the volunteers’ lives.”
HandsOn NWNC’s Amy Lytle also has words of encouragement for volunteers and nonprofit leaders: “If you’re interested in volunteering, JUST DO IT! There are so many ways to get involved, no matter your passions, your skill set or your time limitations. There is a project or an opportunity out there for you. For nonprofit leaders — YOU’RE DOING GREAT! You’ve just reached the one year mark of working through the front-lines of a global pandemic. Whatever you’re doing, it is enough. Be kind to yourself, provide grace to others, and ask for help when you need it. You owe it to your mission and your stakeholders to not burn yourself out trying to accomplish the impossible.”