It Takes A Village: Iowa Pilots New Volunteer Center Model in Marion County to Take On Public Health

This April, in honor of National Volunteer Month and Week (April 15-21, 2018), we’ll be featuring stories of how volunteers are impacting states and the ways in which state service commissions are harnessing the power of volunteers to meet critical local needs through the federal Volunteer Generation Fund (VGF) program. Learn more at statecommissions.org/volunteer-generation-fund.

Today’s spotlight is on Volunteer Iowa, the Iowa commission on service and volunteerism.

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In Iowa, the Volunteer Generation Fund (VGF) program is leveraged by Volunteer Iowa as the state service commission to help develop and enhance the state’s volunteer infrastructure through in-depth volunteer management training and consulting with the Service Enterprise Initiative as well as providing sub-grants to local Volunteer Centers. In 2018, Volunteer Iowa awarded $107,000 in federal VGF grant funds from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to local organizations selected through a statewide competitive process, which is matched by $172,899 in non-federal dollars.

If you aren’t already familiar, Volunteer Centers provide critical services to their communities, including connecting people with opportunities to volunteer and serve, increasing capacity for organizations to engage volunteers in meaningful service, promoting volunteering in the community, and being the voice to suggest volunteerism as a solution to community problems and helping to develop such programs. Volunteer Centers are commonly their own nonprofit organizations, and are sometimes housed within a local United Way or city government.

This year, with Volunteer Generation Fund grant support, Volunteer Iowa is investing in a new Volunteer Center approach being piloted in Marion County by VGF sub-grantee, Marion County Public Health (MCPHD), in Knoxville, Iowa.

The core mission of MCPHD is to prevent disease through health promotion and protection using assessment, policy development, and assurance. Establishment of a new volunteer center aligns with the mission of MCPHD in that, in order to achieve the goal of a healthy population and sustain a healthy community, the mantra of “it takes a village” certainly rings true.

Volunteerism is a key component in the development of the fabric of a community and establishing a culture of health. No one entity in a community can provide all services or financially sustain all needs, volunteers are essential human capital to bolster the success of programming, create sustainability and influence health outcomes for the community.

Individuals who volunteer live significantly longer, healthier and better lives, according to a study in 2007 by the Corporation for National and Community Service. State volunteer rates are strongly connected with the physical health of the states’ population. A study of the Americans’ Changing Lives survey found a threshold of volunteering was necessary for health benefits. Those individuals who volunteered at least 40 hours per year, as well as those who volunteered with just one organization, or group, had the lowest risk of mortality (Musick et al., 1999).

It is well known that one’s environment — where they live, work and play — may have a marked impact on the health of an individual, family and community. In recent years it has become incumbent upon local Public Health agencies to reach further beyond direct programming to engage community partners in development of systemic efforts to move forward public health practices. The realm of Public Health has a long and in general unsung history of interventions in our society. Much like the efforts of public health, the hard work, dedication and resulting public good of volunteers often goes overlooked and unnamed. However, the community fabric has the ability to be forever changed by both.

For Public Health, practices and interventions must be championed throughout the community at the personal, family and community level to achieve real, impactful life changes. Community champions must help carry forth the public health message and practices in a manner that can be sustained beyond public health programming — and volunteers are a key component of this equation as they champion the greater good and experience a sense of personal purpose and satisfaction in their own service.

During the first year of this pilot the Volunteer Center is focusing efforts on the county seat of Knoxville, Iowa. Knoxville has an estimated population of 7,244. According to US Census data it is projected that 7.2% of the population in Knoxville is under the age of 5 and 24.7% is under the age of 18. Census data also indicate that 16.9% of the population lives in poverty. A 2015 Kids Count Data report produced by the Child and Family Policy Center reveals that the number of children in Marion County Iowa living in poverty has increased by 27.9% during the timeframe of 2000 to 2015. According to the Iowa Department of Education, the free and reduced lunch rate in the Knoxville Community School district for the 2016-2017 school year was 43.3%. Knoxville could be described as a lower income, working class community.

In recent years, Knoxville has entered into a season of renewal and transformation. Community leaders have identified a solid vision for the future and have developed strategic plans creating a call to action that has reverberated throughout the community. Key stakeholders, employers and the average citizen have become impassioned to see projects through with an end goal of a happy, healthy, safe and thriving community. Residents are developing a service-oriented culture and sense of community that will serve as the underpinnings of sustaining a vibrant and revitalized city. Since receiving a Volunteer Generation Fund subgrant from Volunteer Iowa, the community’s key revitalization projects have gained momentum and volunteers are leading the way. Some of these key projects include a “Spring Into Parks” Volunteer Clean Up Day, the placement of volunteers at local English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to run a daycare center, the development of a suicide prevention coalition, opening a school food bank, and the launch of a new community walkability study. Great things are happening in the community that will not simply be one time volunteer days, but long-reaching public health changes to the community’s population that will enrich its residents’ well-being and fellowship while also establishing a culture of service.

By investing in Volunteer Centers through the Volunteer Generation Fund, Volunteer Iowa is supporting hyper-local, community-driven volunteerism that meets local needs and builds social capital. Through the network of Volunteer Centers, Volunteer Iowa is partnering to provide capacity building services and training to nonprofits and create a culture of service. The VGF grant allows Volunteer Iowa to support innovative approaches, including promoting volunteerism locally as a public health initiative, that will improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement.

Learn more about Iowa’s VGF intiative and subgrantees. Learn more about the Marion County Health Department at www.marionph.org.

Volunteer Iowa (Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service) and its partner agencies work with organizations and individuals on three main fronts. The first is to help agencies develop quality programs that use service as a strategy to fulfill their missions and address Iowa’s greatest areas of need. The second is to help engage Iowans in their communities by promoting service and expanding the volunteer base. Finally, the third area of work is to connect individuals with appropriate service opportunities by building the volunteer infrastructure. More information is available at volunteeriowa.org.

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