City's volunteers step up

Mary Katherine Watson had passed the Salvation Army offices dozens of times on her drive through downtown.

But as the Columbia woman prepared kettles for the holiday season, loaded donations for the Thrift Store and sorted cleaning kits for residents, it was with a deeper understanding for the work the human service agency does.

"I think people often donate and don't know where their donations are going," Watson said. "I really didn't have a grasp of what people went through."

Chances are, similar revelations were taking place across the city.

Hundreds of volunteers tackled nearly 20 community improvement projects Friday as part of the United Way's Day of Action.

The day is held four times each year and matches volunteer teams with area nonprofit groups to perform needed work.

The volunteer teams were formed largely from 17 companies and organizations. Watson joined about 15 others from the insurance firm Keenan Suggs who spent several hours painting, sorting, cleaning and rearranging Salvation Army offices at North Main Street and Elmwood Avenue.

"I didn't know there was so much to put together," Watson said as she glanced at the rows of kettles that will be used to collect donations during holiday season.

Eric Roberts, United Way volunteer center manager, said he had experienced many similar "eye-opening" moments with volunteers at Friday's event.

"People are seeing that a lot of nonprofits don't just run off of money," he said. "They run off of people."

What's more, he said, the first-hand experiences generally build more lasting relationships between community members and area service groups.

Among other service projects Friday were landscaping and beautification at Tender Years Child Development Center, assembling invitations and envelopes at the March of Dimes, and sorting and packing food at Harvest Hope Food Bank.

When possible, individuals and groups were assigned to service areas that matched their personal interests.

Roberts estimates that, in all, the more than 300 volunteers contributed about 1,590 hours, valued at $32,300.

Melani Miller, Salvation Army special project manager, said the value of those hours can't be overstated.

Nonprofits have been hit particularly hard by the challenging economy, she said, adding that volunteers are crucial to help offset the limited staff and resources.

"We don't have the person power," Miller said. "We need more than five folks to do these projects."

Friday's Day of Action follows similar events held in January, April and June. The latest effort is the biggest of the year and parallels the United Way of the Midlands 2009-10 fundraising campaign.

Agency leaders have set a $10.2 million goal for this year's campaign.

Those who want to know more about volunteer opportunities may call Roberts at (803) 758-6987