Land of the mouse encouraging, rewarding volunteerism

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By Sondra L. Shapiro

I did a day of volunteer work at my local food pantry, so I’m going to Disney World!

Once a month, I take time out of my busy work and personal schedule to supervise the flow of individuals who, without the extra food, would not get proper nutrition and, in some cases, would go hungry. I have been a volunteer at that food pantry for more years than I can remember.

Though I am not looking for any kudos, I graciously accept Disney Parks’ decision to celebrate people like me through “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day.” Even the biggest cynic would have difficulty criticizing a campaign that will most certainly give a very necessary boost to the ranks of national service. “A company like Disney has the ability to make big shifts with people,” said Brad Baker, manager of marketing strategy at Walt Disney World, during a recent phone conversation. “When we go out with a message like this, people listen and people react.”

As a volunteer, the payback for me is a sense that I am helping improve the quality of life for someone who needs a break. But I have to admit a day at one of those parks, compliments of Walt Disney, makes me feel a little more special. “Volunteerism isn’t something you want to pat yourself on the back for,” said Baker. “We want people to take the initiative and go out and do it. We felt that would be worth celebrating.” The first 1 million individuals who sign up through the program and complete a day of volunteer work, will get a free one-day admission, worth $79, to a Walt Disney World Resort or Disneyland Resort theme park.

Every moment I spend at the food pantry is a soul-enriching experience for me, even while it is heart breaking to meet some of the people that come through the doors — frail widows whose Social Security checks don’t stretch enough to afford basic necessities, the newly unemployed struggling to put food on the table for the family, people whose handicaps preclude them from regular employment. I end my shift feeling I should do more because I am so blessed to have so much.

Even as my own family has felt the impact of this recession, my troubles don’t even register compared to the misfortunes I see each month. So, if folks are offered motivation to volunteer once, they will surely want to make it a part of their regular routine. The nation — more than at any other time in recent history — needs to count on volunteers to attend the less fortunate; “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” is responsible for already helping to spur individuals into action.

While the initiative began in January, news items across the country report a huge influx of interest, with some agencies saying that hundreds are knocking at the door. So far, more than 600,000 individuals have signed on.

When I perused local opportunities online through the Disney program I found positions for food pantry volunteers, meals on wheels drivers, positions at the Animal Rescue League, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, Ocean Explorium and various openings at my local councils on aging.

A recent survey, conducted by New York-based Kelton Research in November, found that 59 percent of Americans plan to volunteer in 2010. Survey results also showed that 41 percent of Americans would rather pledge to help others, such as volunteering, than resolve to do something that is purely self-serving. That information coincides with what Disney found when it surveyed its visitors.

“This is something that our guests were interested in. We delved a little deeper to find out the kinds of things they want to celebrate and volunteering came out of that,” said Baker.

So the Give a Day program became a natural outgrowth of the company’s recent “What Will You Celebrate?” campaign that acknowledged milestones in people’s lives such as birthdays, anniversaries or running that first marathon.

Could this campaign been more fortuitously timed? The recession has taken a toll on employment and state budgets. Never has the need been greater among average citizens, with programs, agencies and services coping with higher demand and far less money to make a dent. “You could say that was the result of how things are today,” said Baker.

Here in Massachusetts, thousands of homebound elderly are on waiting lists for services. Councils on aging are struggling to stay relevant. The unemployment rate as of December was 9.1 percent. And, the food pantry where I volunteer has experienced a huge uptick in clients.

“There have been a lot of people who were interested in volunteering, but didn’t know how to tap into volunteerism. Now, since we started, a lot of folks are learning how to do so,” Baker said.

HandsOn, the nation’s largest volunteer network, is acting on behalf of Disney as a portal to the various volunteer opportunities available. The organization has 250 on-the-ground volunteer action centers across the country and connects volunteers to more than 70,000 nonprofit agencies that need their help.

If you think you don’t have enough time to volunteer, think again. I am proof that even an hour or two a month can make a difference.

No one could deny that the Disney company is offering “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day,” as part of its marketing plan. However, it deserves a big Mickey applause for helping to make a positive difference in communities during some of the most difficult economic times in recent history.

Folks can go to www.DisneyParks.com to search for volunteer opportunities available through HandsOn Network and sign up for a day of volunteer service.

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. She can be reached at sshapiro.fiftyplusadvocates.com