Walworth County Government Today: Volunteers give time, talent to many county programs

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Dave Bretl | April 27, 2015

In case you missed it, April 12 through April 18 marked National Volunteer Week. I have never been a fan of the “Hallmark holidays,” like Root Canal Awareness Week (it actually took place last month) and similar occasions contrived to sell greeting cards or promote some product. National Volunteer Week has it all over Bosses Day, however, and I had a chance to meet some of the hundreds of volunteers who serve Walworth County at a luncheon held to honor them on April 16.

As government budgets have become tighter over the years, I have come to appreciate the increasingly important role that volunteers play in delivering services to the public. Walworth County supports two volunteer initiatives and is served by many other generous citizens who offer their time and talent to make the county such a great place.

The first effort is led by our volunteer services coordinator, Colleen Lesniak. Colleen is a county employee who is responsible for placing volunteers in county departments and programs. Chief among her duties is promoting awareness of the importance of volunteerism, both among the public and within the county organization. The first half of her charge is pretty straightforward. The public needs to be aware of the county's need for volunteers and the types of opportunities that are available. The second aspect of creating awareness, challenging county managers to think of ways in which volunteers can serve their programs, has evolved over time. Some county departments already were sold on the idea. Our nursing home and special needs school have long histories of engaging volunteers. Other departments, including my own administration department, were far less familiar with the power of volunteers. Persuaded by Colleen's efforts and the excellent results obtained by our managers, volunteers now serve in many county departments.

Meals on Wheels and our senior dining centers are two of the largest beneficiaries of volunteer service. Anne Prince, the county's nutrition program supervisor in charge of these programs, reported that in 2014, 30 volunteers logged 4,075 hours to serve 18,074 meals at the county's six dining centers. The statistics for the county's home-delivered meal service (Meals on Wheels) are equally impressive. Approximately 475 volunteers staffed 12 Meals on Wheels routes, delivering nearly 31,000 meals to the program's 304 participants and logging more than 47,000 miles in the process.

There are many reasons why volunteers donate their time. In many cases, retired folks like to stay active by promoting the programs they support or just keeping other work skills sharp. Unemployed workers occasionally will join our mix of volunteers to keep their resumes current and contribute to the community while they look for work. Finally, interns from the two four-year universities in the county, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and George Williams College of Aurora University, as well as students from Gateway Technical College, learn valuable lessons on the job to supplement their classroom work.

In addition to creating interest both among volunteers and county departments, Colleen is responsible for ensuring that background checks are conducted on prospective volunteers and statistics regarding the program are maintained.

Our county's volunteer effort really began to take off in 2009. In that year's budget, Colleen's position, which was part time and dedicated solely to the nursing home, was upgraded to full-time status and given a countywide mission. Colleen shares office space with me at the government center in Elkhorn, so I have a firsthand view of just how busy she is.

The numbers confirm the success of the program. In 2014, 864 volunteers and 39 interns served county programs. These volunteers provided more than 33,000 hours of service. All of these hours save tax dollars. For planning purposes, we typically use the figure of 2,080 hours per year when we budget for new paid positions. At that rate, volunteers offset the need to hire nearly 16 full-time equivalent employees. The national organization Independent Sector calculated the average value of a volunteer's time at $22.50 per hour. By that measure, the county received $747,000 worth of service. Eleven different county departments, ranging from the corporation counsel office to Lakeland School, benefited from the efforts of volunteers last year.

The second volunteer program with ties to the county is provided through a nonprofit group called Volunteer Connection Inc. The program used to be known as the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. That title brought with it federal money that was used to provide administrative support for the hundreds of volunteers who worked in nursing homes and similar nonprofit agencies throughout Walworth County. Unfortunately in 2010, the group lost its RSVP sponsorship and funding. Not skipping a beat, the organization changed its name to Volunteer Connection and organized as a nonprofit. Patti O'Brien currently serves as its director. In addition to providing office space, the county has made an annual appropriation to the organization of about $11,000.

The county's own program and Volunteer Connection are not the only volunteer initiatives associated with the county. Hundreds more volunteers support 4-H and the UW-Extension. Just one of these groups, the master gardeners, logged more than 4,000 hours of service, according to Chrissy Wen, our UW-Extension horticulture educator.

The county always is looking for volunteers, particularly individuals who might be able to deliver Meals on Wheels. Another unique opportunity that will be taking place this summer is Lakeland School's I Can Bike Camp. The goal of the program is to help special needs students learn to ride bicycles.

If you are interested in volunteering to support the county program, call Colleen at 262-741-4223. For other volunteer opportunities, Patti can be reached at 262-723-5383.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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