Volunteer shortage worries organizations

By Debbi Elmore | September 30, 2021

Gwendolyn Starks, better known as Grandma Gwen, reads to children at the TOP Early Learning Center Northwest as part of the Foster Grandparent Program.

When Mark Mohesky retired, he quickly started volunteering with Meals on Wheels. Mohesky, who spent 33 years in the Wichita school district’s media production department, said he derives a great deal of satisfaction taking nutritious meals to people who might not otherwise have them.

“Getting out into the community to deliver the lunches and looking into the eyes of people who have maybe had some bad days but put that behind them to visit with you for a few minutes — when they might not have any human contact other than me that day — that’s a blessing for them and a blessing for us as volunteers,” Mohesky said.

Mike Mohesky

But volunteers such as Mohesky are in shorter supply these days, with nonprofit organizations across the region reporting a drop in their numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic and other factors. For some organizations such as Senior Services, Inc., which operates Meals on Wheels, older adults have always provided the bulk of their volunteer workforce.

“Volunteers are a vital piece to our organization, especially in the Meals on Wheels program,” said Karen Dao, director of programs for Senior Services, Inc. “Over the last few months, we have been experiencing a shortage of volunteers, requiring more staff to cover up to eight to 12 routes daily.  The reason for the decrease in volunteers is not exactly known, though we believe that surgeries and vacations that were postponed during the first year of COVID are being scheduled. There are also a number of volunteers that have returned to their teaching positions or back to their offices. The greatest need for volunteers is usually Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.”

The Foster Grandparent Program operated by Catholic Charities of Wichita is also experiencing shortages in volunteers. The program places adults 55 and older in public and parochial schools, Head Start sites, Boys and Girls Clubs, TOP Early Learning Centers and summer camps across the area.

“Due to the pandemic, many Foster Grandparents chose not to return to the classroom last year,” Catholic Charities Senior Director of Ministries Joyce Mahoney said. “We are currently requiring Foster Grandparents to follow all COVID-19 precautions set by their volunteer sites, and we are requiring masks during our Foster Grandparent training sessions. We are looking to recruit more Foster Grandparents to ensure we can provide a spot for all of our funded positions this school year.”

Butler County Foster Grandparent Priscilla
Martinez helps a young student with his work.

Those still volunteering offer rave reviews about the experiences.

Foster Grandparent Gwendolyn Starks — known as Grandma Gwen — has been a prominent figure at TOP Early Learning Center Northwest for over four years. She spends her days reading to children, coloring with them, providing them hugs and helping teachers with their students in the classrooms. 

Starks has also taken on the role of part-time dishwasher, splitting her time between the classrooms and the kitchen. Having spent the majority of her career as a kitchen manager for USD 259, she is well qualified for the position.

“They (the Foster Grandparents Program) brought me out here and I remember saying to the assistant director, ‘I like this place. Are there babies here?’ She said, ‘You like babies?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘We’ll keep you.’”

Crystal Noles, director of the Butler County Department on Aging, said the closing of schools and nonprofit organizations temporarily lessened the demand for volunteers, which could have lasting ramifications.

“Many of our volunteers saw this as an opportunity to retire from volunteering and focus on their own well-being and family time,” Noles said. “Other volunteers continued to stick with the program and embrace the creativity of our program managers, site supervisors, and their workstations as we all worked together to come up with safe ways for our volunteers to remain engaged.  These opportunities have ranged from picking up materials from teachers to help make take-home packets for students in the event of quarantine to relocating to a solitary location within the school where they can still participate via Zoom with the classroom and work one-on-one with certain children.”

The Harvey County Department on Aging is experiencing a shortfall of volunteers, according to Mary Adams, director of its RSVP program. “Volunteers have dropped out from the health concerns. They are protecting themselves from catching COVID.  Others have stopped volunteering because their health has declined during COVID. Some volunteers have stopped volunteering because their children are concerned about the volunteers’ lives.”

RSVP places volunteers in about 20 nonprofits in Harvey County, focusing on helping seniors stay in their homes by providing them with food, transportation to medical appointments and other services. Finding 44 more volunteers is a “must for the community,” Adams said.

“We are looking for volunteers that have the passion to help the elderly who are home bound stay in their homes through the Meals on Wheels,” she said. “Another program is providing a volunteer to go grocery shopping for the elderly homebound but who are able to cook.

“I feel that everyone wanting to volunteer for a few hours, or a few regular shifts during a week or a month would help every charity in Harvey County.”

Harvey County resident Pat Denno found her volunteer fit at the Et Cetera nonprofit community thrift shop in Newton. 

The community has been so good to me,” Denno said. “I wanted to give back.”