We Asked, They Answered: Building the Haven’s COVID-19 Volunteer Team

“I want to feel like I am doing something to help and not just looking out for myself.”

One of our volunteers, Barbara, shared this sentiment about why it’s important to her to give back at this time, and our Director of Community Education & Volunteer Services, Amber Johnston, attests that it’s a common theme during COVID-19, saying “it’s amazing to see the number of people offering to help their neighbors.”

In mid-March, our Executive Director sent a letter to all regular active volunteers asking older or at-risk volunteers to help with an act of kindness—be kind to themselves and the people who love them by considering not coming to the Haven until it is safe to do so, with a promise that they could not be replaced. It was bittersweet that many complied, resulting in a reduction of our volunteers by approximately 75%.

Since the Upper Valley Haven relies heavily on active volunteers to support our work, our Volunteer Services team set to work rethinking volunteer positions and how they could operationalize them with health and safety as top priorities. They created a safety protocol for volunteers that includes daily health checks and temperature readings as well as following all CDC-recommended guidelines in regards to physical distancing, proper hygiene, and mask wearing. All volunteers are required to wear masks, and gloves when handling food or food boxes/items. The Haven now uses single-use name tags, cleans and sanitizes surfaces, bathrooms, and doorknobs multiple times daily, and has set up sanitation stations for staff and volunteers. Only staff, volunteers, known vendors, and a decreased number of shelter guests are allowed inside campus buildings; our public restrooms and shower remain open for time-restricted use and with patrons waiting outside the building until available.

Amber and our Volunteer Services Coordinator, Kerri Weeks, kept in close contact with around 65 remaining volunteers who were able to donate their time to areas like the Food Shelf, meal prep, dinner teams, and gardening. Amber also spearheaded efforts to build a central volunteer database for Upper Valley Strong using the Haven’s VolunteerHub software, giving a home to volunteer opportunities for nonprofits in need of helping hands through an online portal.

Since the launch of the collaborative volunteer portal in late March, nearly 400 people have signed up to volunteer. By working efficiently and effectively through operations and safety measures and diligently posting opportunities on VolunteerHub, Kerri has set up about 100 new, active volunteers for the Haven from March 23 through the time of this posting, an outstanding response. Typically, she onboards 20-25 volunteers per month. New volunteers have been receiving and sorting food donations, stocking our indoor Food Shelf and our outdoor food tent, prepping meals, bringing Food Shelf boxes to customers, making deliveries, and sewing masks.

Our volunteers, new and regular, accomplish a lot during their shifts. Since adding the outdoor components of a tent and registration to the outside our building, the Haven’s campus is constantly bustling on weekdays. Phyllis Deutsch began volunteering in March 2020 and has loved her experience, which started in the Food Shelf then shifted to the white food tent in the parking lot, including set-up, breakdown, and distributing food to customers. She shares, “All my previous jobs have been sedentary; at the Haven, I move around the whole time—lifting, pushing, pulling, sprinting—the time flies by. I learn something every day that I did not know before. The entire staff is amazing. I feel very honored to work with them.” Why is it important for her to volunteer at this time? “I am fortunate when so many others are not. Anything I can do to repair the broken world is good for me and for others.”

Sue Kirincich, of Sunrise Farm in Hartland, also began volunteering in March 2020 when her professional work was dramatically curtailed by COVID-19. She says, “I felt the immediate need to balance my own fears and anxieties by helping in my community in some way. Working together with other volunteers and staff to serve the Haven’s clients and customers has been one of the best parts of the past several weeks for me. It has helped me to feel part of a team with a purpose and good leadership. It has also given me direct insight into the tremendous need in the Upper Valley for food and shelter. What could be more fundamental?”

Barbara Pespisa is one of our “regulars” who began volunteering with the Haven five years ago after her husband died. She was looking for a way to help others and feel needed, and found a home on our volunteer team in the Food Shelf. “While I have been experiencing a lot of anxiety in this time, my anxiety level goes down when I am at the Haven.” She has recently cut back to two shifts a week for her personal mental health, but in her “time off,” she has made over 200 cloth masks, the majority of which have been donated to the Haven.

As Amber sums up, “We are so thankful for all those who have volunteered to help during this time. Now and moving forward, safety is paramount. We look forward to welcoming back our regular volunteers when it’s safe for them to return. In the meantime, the outpouring of community engagement from new volunteers has been heartwarming.”

We’ve been saying it for a long time, but it’s one of our favorite things to say: we love our volunteers.

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