Mary Terrell spent almost three decades in a demanding career at a big corporation and was weeks away from retirement when a stranger sitting next to her at the hair salon asked an unsettling question: What were her retirement plans?
Terrell, who was retiring relatively young, planned to clean out some closets and sleep in. The stranger suggested she find a passion to pursue instead. “Oh, well, I don’t really have a passion because my passion has been the work I’ve done for the last 28 years since I was out of school,” Terrell recalls telling the woman. ‘‘‘Well,’ she said, ‘I would suggest you find something.’”
The exchange gave Terrell pause. She went home and sat down on the couch with her cockapoo, Misty, snuggled into her lap. “I’m sitting here thinking: What is my passion? What do I love? I love this dog,” Terrell thought. “I know it sounds corny, but it’s the absolute truth.”
She had identified her passion and, since 2003, has devoted her time and energy to Placer SPCA, a companion animal welfare organization based in Roseville. She started as a part-time humane educator and retired from that position in 2012, shifting into a volunteer role, first working with dogs and more recently handling administrative tasks.
If not for the involvement of volunteers like Terrell, who contribute labor, expertise and heart, nonprofit organizations would be hard pressed to achieve their missions. Volunteers often constitute a group of invaluable workers who steeply outnumber paid staff. Volunteerism improves the quality of life in our communities, says Holly Brown, program manager of the nonprofit HandsOn Sacramento, The Regional Center for Volunteerism, which provides a free volunteer website service engaging more than 8,000 volunteers for roughly 780 nonprofits and about 100 businesses and government agencies in the greater Sacramento region.
“This is a critical time for volunteers to engage,” Brown says. “More than serving one another, volunteerism contributes to the social capital of any given city [and] region.”
Taking the Initial Steps
Aspiring volunteers have options. They can tutor children, walk shelter animals, play music for hospice patients, hold babies in neonatal intensive care units, deliver food to people who are unhoused, set up seasonal events or help with emergency response, such as medical professionals who provide first aid at large public gatherings or staff shelters for people displaced by climate disasters like floods or wildfires—a growing need.
New volunteers typically first look for an organization whose mission aligns with their own passions. Next, many organizations require orientation and training. (Some have gone virtual or hybrid as a result of the pandemic.) Fingerprinting and a background check could be required.
More specialized training might follow, including for volunteers at Sacramento-based Meals on Wheels by ACC, who learn how to handle sensitive patient health information. As court-mandated reporters, they also complete elder-abuse training. Volunteers for the home delivered meals program then shadow existing drivers for at least two days, says volunteer services specialist Robin Smith.
The hospice program of Kaiser Permanente Northern California currently includes 27 active volunteers (down from pre-pandemic levels of around 60), all of whom submitted an application and interviewed with the volunteer manager. A background check, drug screen, proof of vaccination, orientation and training follow for those selected to participate.
For Placer SPCA, training is dependent on the volunteer’s specific role. If someone wants to interact with dogs, for instance, they start with learning how to socialize a dog within the habitat. They advance to dog walking, which requires another virtual training and being paired up with a liaison volunteer for in-person lessons on campus. “Most of our volunteers have had pets in their life,” says Tami Schmitz, director of programs and volunteers. “They know how to walk the dog. But the whole point of this training is to make sure we’re all being consistent, handling the animals the same exact way.”
Organizations aim to set realistic expectations with new volunteers early on about the commitment involved, says Placer SPCA chief executive officer Leilani Fratis, who started her career in animal welfare as a volunteer on Saturdays. She declined fun weekend invitations to honor the commitment. “It’s not to say that volunteering is going to take up your entire life . . . but I think you do need to think about how you’re going to carve out that time,” says Fratis, whose organization requires a minimum of four hours per month for six months to keep a volunteer active.
Separately from HandsOn Sacramento, Brown is also responsible for coordinating volunteers and organizations for active disasters and emergency food and shelter programs for the Sacramento region. Wildfire emergencies kept her swamped during late summer and early fall working with the Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services. She says spontaneous volunteers—those who respond to a call to help without having formal training—have become a significant need in the wake of more frequent or severe wildfires, floods, earthquakes, pandemics and severe weather. Vetted volunteerism also remains critical, she says, referring to trained teams ready to deploy, such as volunteers with the American Red Cross or The Salvation Army.
Volunteer opportunities, however, do exist for those who can’t or don’t want to make unpaid work a regular item on their to-do list. The Davis Community Garden on Fifth Street, for instance, needs up to 10 volunteers every other week to help with weeding, mulching and beautification projects in the garden’s public spaces, says city of Davis volunteer program coordinator Kellie Vitaich. And while she might appreciate people bringing their own gardening gloves, no prior training, background check or ongoing commitment is requested. There’s just a simple waiver to sign.
Finding the Right Organizational Fit
Celia Nicolos, an Elk Grove resident and volunteer at Sacramento-based Saint John’s Program for Real Change, which serves women in crisis and their children, says incorporating volunteer hours into her weekly routine has been critical to her honoring the commitment. “I’ve just made it a complete priority,” she explains.
When the youngest of Nicolos’ five children graduated from high school in 2018, the empty nester realized she could give her newfound time to a nonprofit. The former soccer mom, as she describes herself, then in her late 50s, could also put her familiarity in a kitchen to use. She had cooked a lot of meals for her kids over the years.
At Saint John’s, she chops fruits and vegetables and helps prep lunches for the residents—anything to reduce the workload of staff. “They have a fabulous, very hardworking chef there, and I see it as my duty, as with the other volunteers that come in and out of the kitchen, to make his job easier,” she says. But she gets something out of the arrangement, too: “You just feel really good when you help other people. It feeds our souls.”
Nicolos says her Christian faith immediately drew her to Saint John’s, which started in 1985 as an emergency shelter of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sacramento. For others, finding the right organizational fit can take trial and error, but people shouldn’t be deterred if they don’t think they possess the perfect skill set or if they have a physical or other type of limitation.
Placer SPCA, for example, has a contingent of seniors who walk dogs, but only appropriate ones—not a 30-pounder who pulls on a leash, but perhaps a 10-pound, well-trained terrier. Volunteers also staff the Placer SPCA Thrift Store in Roseville, which relies on up to 90 volunteers to sort donations, welcome customers and work the register. For the organization’s 600 to 675 registered volunteers, other roles include fostering animals, socializing cats and dogs, office work and helping at fundraisers or mobile events, Schmitz says.
Similarly, Meals on Wheels’ Smith says that if people have a particular strength, they’ll find a way to make it work. Some volunteers perform vehicle maintenance, handle newsletter communications or call participants who may be lonely to offer a friendly check-in. Before the pandemic, Meals on Wheels by ACC had 250 to 500 volunteers. The roster now includes 180 drivers. The organization could use more: Currently, there’s a waitlist of about 1,000 people needing services. Drivers do much more than deliver hot and frozen meals to the roughly 1,700 people in the home-delivered meals program.
“We really rely on our volunteers to build relationships with our participants,” Smith says. “Almost all of our participants on the home-delivered meal program are isolated, frail and homebound with little to no outside support. So really their drivers are the only person that some of them see and talk to on any given day, and that driver is building up that rapport with them.”
The participant gets social interaction, and the volunteer can watch for changes in cognitive or physical abilities, Smith says. As the volunteer makes polite conversation, they’re also checking to see if the senior suddenly lost 15 pounds or went from alert to confused. Volunteers visually scan for bruises or wounds. They listen for anything disconcerting, like if the participant says her paid caregiver hasn’t been showing up.
It’s a hefty responsibility and means volunteers act as advocates, speaking up for the participants and their needs so the organization can better serve them.
Mary DuBose began volunteering for the hospice program of Kaiser Permanente Northern California in 2011, shortly after retiring as an attorney. Her duties vary from patient to patient, and she says flexibility is a much-needed quality in those who work with hospice patients, who have a life expectancy of six months or less. She may sit and watch television with a patient, or they may play dominoes together. While some patients are ambulatory and want to talk, others are bedridden and prefer silence.
“You just kind of go with the flow and put into action those listening skills and empathy, and look toward the patient and his or her family for your direction as to what you’re going to be doing,” DuBose says.
Vance Purcell, the home health and hospice service director for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, says patient care volunteers provide emotional support and practical assistance to patients and their families, which can include companionship, listening, reading and light housekeeping. He also needs volunteers to run errands, make patient check-in calls and assist with anticipatory grief counseling and bereavement support for the families.
While hard skills can be useful, Purcell’s program needs volunteers with qualities much harder to teach: empathy, compassion, kindness and a willingness to lend an ear. “It really takes somebody special to want to be there in these very difficult times,” he says. “Every experience through hospice is different, every patient’s experience, every family’s experience, and it’s really important to have people that are there to support people as they live out their last days.”
“The heart and Soul” of an Organization
During the summer, employees of local construction company Teichert visited Saint John’s to help out. One time, it was a team of about 40 volunteers for a facility improvement project; another time, about eight volunteers served dinner to women in the program. Volunteer contributions from individuals and companies over the past year probably accounted for a quarter of a million dollars of improvements and repairs that the organization did not have to directly pay for, says CEO Julie Hirota. “So it’s huge.”
Volunteerism helps mitigate the cost of staffing for onetime needs, like facility improvements, and ongoing needs, such as work in the donation warehouse or assistance in the child care center, all to help the nonprofit’s overall goal of serving more than 500 people annually, about half of whom are children. Before the pandemic, Saint John’s had roughly 450 registered volunteers, a number that has sharply dropped since 2020, although interest is rising again, Hirota says.
Smith, of Meals on Wheels by ACC, says volunteer contributions directly result in cost savings and a better product. She points to how the organization recently switched vendors for its home-delivered meals program to Brick House in Elk Grove, which prepares restaurant-quality frozen and hot meals (following certain nutritional standards).
The nonprofit 916 Ink in Sacramento had 80 volunteers who provided critical support in the past school year, says executive director Ian Hadley. Most volunteers work one-on-one with students or help get their writing ready for publication. He says volunteers are “the heart and soul” of the organization. Right now, 916 Ink could use at least 120 volunteers to accommodate the significant expansion of its creative writing and reading tutoring programs, Hadley says.
“We simply would not be able to have the same level of impact on our students’ academic and social-emotional journeys without our community volunteers,” Hadley says. “Everything that we do at Ink is centered around people giving of themselves to positively influence young people who need our attention, our time and our commitment.”
Meanwhile, at Kaiser Permanente, hospice volunteers are part of a terminal patient’s interdisciplinary team, which includes physicians, nurses, other clinicians and pharmacists. They all come together to talk about the total care of the patient; insight provided by the volunteer is crucial to this process, Purcell says.
For Placer SPCA, Fratis estimates volunteers contribute up to 100,000 hours a year doing work that ensures the animals get quality care and attention. But more volunteers are needed, as there are always more tasks to be done. “We’re in constant triage,” she says. “We don’t know what to expect every day, and so we remain busy at all times.”
Nonprofits benefit significantly from the involvement of volunteers, but the converse is also true. When Mary Terrell’s husband, Dave Terrell, retired after 30 years as a repairman for Xerox, he faced the same dilemma his wife did on the eve of her own retirement. “I was encouraging him to get involved in something, because sitting around the house all day is not good, not productive and not a way to live,” Mary says.
Since 2006, Dave has been both a part-time paid handyman for Placer SPCA and a volunteer. Today, he assists with the Pet Mobile a couple times a month, along with helping around the center, doing laundry and cleaning, working at the thrift store and taking care of whatever else is needed. His favorite part is when an animal gets adopted. “[It’s] very satisfying when you’re able to get that dog, cat, rabbit to a good home,” he says. “The animals and the people—they’re just so happy when they leave.”
The Terrells got Misty when she was about 8 years old from someone who could no longer take care of her. Mary still wonders, if Misty hadn’t jumped into her lap that one afternoon, whether she and Dave would have ever connected with Placer SPCA. They have now spent years as volunteers, doing work that matters for an organization they deeply value.
The Terrells say they see this same passion in their peers. Volunteers stepped up big time during the Mosquito Fire in September to help procure, sort and transport donations for animals in the care of Placer County Animal Services, which handled more than 400 evacuated pets, Fratis says. Evacuees with their pets could also pick up donated supplies from the Placer SPCA community center in Roseville, which volunteers assisted with.
That same month, steady rains hammered the area for a couple of days. That didn’t scare off the Placer SPCA volunteers. “These dog walkers never stopped,” Mary Terrell says. “They’re like, OK, we’ll break out the umbrellas. Let’s keep going. We’ve got to get these dogs out.”