Still Showing Up: Companies, employees get creative to help organizations in need

Smaller groups, handwritten notes and outdoor activities are defining the activities of today’s volunteers, who remain passionate about their pet causes.

“People show up. They’re still passionate about volunteering in the midst of a pandemic,” said Seth Johnson, CEO of United Way of Northwest Michigan. “I had people call in March and April and ask, ‘How can I give back?’ We just had to do it in different ways.”

The annual fall United Way Day of Caring brings out volunteers from area businesses who work on various community projects. This year, given the impact of the novel coronavirus, things were different. But people – both individuals and groups of people, all safely socially distanced – still showed up.

According to Johnson, more than 200 volunteers showed up to 17 different sites.

“Was it a banner year? No, but it still happened.” he said.

This year, smaller groups – often working outside – were the norm for every organization.

Quinn McDonald, chair of the Traverse City Young Professionals volunteer committee, said the group is still coming together for projects, just with fewer people and fewer events.

“Normally we do two volunteer events a month: the State Theatre and another (rotating) one. Not this year,” he said.

Rather, the group turned to safe opportunities for volunteering, such raking leaves and trail work.

“TART provided masks and sanitizer and gloves. We cleaned up one section” of trail, he said.

Volunteers from Traverse City Young Professionals helped sort shoes during United Way’s Day of Caring.

Another group of six people – all outside and socially distanced – sorted through donations of shoes received by the United Way.

Kate Lewis, community engagement manager for TART Trails, said the effort by the TCYP was not unusual.

“We typically have a very robust volunteer network,” she said. “When we learned the lowest risk was outside, we were able to encourage people (to volunteer).”

In addition to providing masks, sanitizer and gloves, TART kept the volunteers safely distanced from one another. Volunteers also had to fill out a questionnaire regarding potential exposure and have their temperature taken.

“Once we got to that point, we felt good about groups,” said Lewis.

The groups includes their ambassador crews, who are long-time regular volunteers. The ambassadors lead groups of volunteers from organizations such as Cherryland Electric, Independent Bank, 4Front Credit Union and Westshore Bank.

Volunteer efforts continue elsewhere, though in some instances they have been paused. Sue Peters, Vice President of Human Resources, said Munson Medical Center typically has around 300 volunteers, whose work was temporarily suspended in March.

TAAR members cleaning up the TART Trail.

That hasn’t stopped people from asking, she said.

“We continue to get requests,” she said, adding that only a very few people are volunteering at Munson in areas where they have little to no contact with staff or patients.

Munson staff members also typically volunteer for outside activities and organizations. While there isn’t any internal network to provide direction or support for such efforts, Peters said many people sign up for boards of local nonprofits, such as Networks Northwest, Traverse Connect and the Leelanau Conservancy, or take on other endeavors that meld their personal interests with a need.

“Around the holidays, many departments come together and sponsor a family,” she said. “There’s not a formal mechanism, it just kind of happens.”

Sarah Friess, manager of team experience and volunteerism at Hagerty, said the company tries to offer numerous options for its employees outside of work. With offices in the U.K., Germany, Canada, Ann Arbor, Dublin, Ohio and Golden, Colo., along with its headquarters in Traverse City, coordinating activities is complex.

Since March, “(we’ve been) trying to figure out how to support the community in positive ways and foster engagement with our employees,” she said.

That’s led to some creative endeavors. Some employees worked at a soup kitchen, which they can’t do this year.

“So we’re doing an e-cookbook, getting recipes from employees,” said Friess.

Another endeavor is Hagerty’s “Meals on Hot Wheels” program for the senior food delivery service Meals on Wheels. When the meals are delivered, a mini-parade of cool cars shows up.

“We love cars, and we love to share. This is a little bit of sunshine in people’s day,” said Friess.

Jasmine Birgy, marketing assistant at TBA Credit Union, said that like other organizations, TBACU tries to provide volunteer opportunities for its employees. That included hosting the beverage tent at the annual Northwestern Michigan College BBQ fundraiser.

“Leadership offers eight hours paid volunteer time per year, and we encourage people to at least do that,” she said.

Moreover, she said working together with fellow employees outside of work helps to build camaraderie.

“I think everyone thinks it is easier to volunteer with a group,” she said.

So with group activities curtailed, TBACU chose another tack.

“Earlier this year, the staff wrote thank-you letters to grocery store workers and postal employees,” she said, noting that it was a group effort that could be done individually.

The letter-writing was part of the United Way Day of Caring. Johnson said such efforts will continue to help bolster the community.

“In 2021 it will continue to evolve,” he said. “People will find new ways to show up. Safe volunteering shows how much this community cares.”